Agra: Stung by negative comments from domestic and foreign visitors on filthy, litter-ridden Agra, a voluntary group of social activists, retired defence personnel and other professionals has embarked on a self-help mission to clean up roads, parks and other public places and utilities in the city of the Taj Mahal that draws millions of tourists to the city every year.
"The whole city stinks. The sewers overflow and gutters are choked. People have to learn how to live in healthy surroundings and scientifically help dispose of the garbage," Sudershan Dua, an ex-serviceman and the mastermind behind the 'India Rising' group, told IANS.
So, instead of waiting for help from the apathetic Uttar Pradesh government and indifferent private individuals, India Rising members decided to take matters into their own hands. "The choice before the locals is clear... either help yourselves or keep waiting for the gods who will never come," say the group members, who sport blue T-shirts and caps.
"Every Sunday morning, we zero in on a selected spot, after posting an invite on Facebook, and clean up the whole area," Anand Rai, group leader and an ex-NASA scientist, told IANS.
"We come armed with our weapons - brooms, spades and baskets - to collect garbage, trim bushes, fill the potholes and give a lick of paint wherever required. We take photos before and after our clean-up activity and post these on the Facebook to motivate others to join. The response has been heartening," said Sandeep Agarwal, another group member.
The campaign began in March 2014, even before Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India and launched the 'Swachch Bharat' initiative.
The group began with just four volunteers at the Sanjay Place commercial complex in the heart of the city. Government bodies are yet to react to the work done by these good Samaritans.
"Last Sunday, we returned to Sanjay Place again to clean up and level a patch of land after many people complained of tripping and getting hurt," activist Narendra Varun told IANS.
Local tourism bodies and big hotels have come in for sharp criticism for failing to contribute towards the clean-up of the city. "They only milk the city and its heritage for maximisation of profits, but give nothing in return. Many a time, hotels have been asked to adopt road crossings or public parks for maintenance, but the response has been poor," said social activist Vivek Sharma.
Every day, more than 500 metric tonnes of garbage is produced in Agra, in addition to industrial waste from leather and shoe factories as well as 'petha' waste. Officials said the total garbage generated daily was well over 750 tonnes.
Disposal of hazardous waste from hospitals and nursing homes has become a major concern for local authorities.
"Right now, the biggest problem is debris generated after demolition of more than 4,000 encroachments in a month-long drive here. The municipal corporation finds the challenge too daunting. The Yamuna 'ghats' are choked with immersed idols of Lord Ganesha," said activist Shravan Kumar Singh.
Agra Municipal Corporation officials say they are doing their work to the extent resources permit them. "The number of 'safai karamcharis' (sweepers) is too small, compared to the amount of garbage generated daily," said union leader Harish.
"The landfill sites are already filled and we are looking for newer areas to dump garbage," an official said.