Chennai-based artist B Gowtham was upset with the rubbish surrounding his neighbourhood and strewn across his city. The amount of pollution piling up every day and the irresponsible behaviour of residents made him feel terrible for the environment and nature.
“I felt like Earth was being turned into a dump yard. People somehow have no sense of responsibility and accountability towards the environment, especially concerning plastic pollution. People do not show respect for nature,” he tells The Better India.
Gowtham wanted to change the mindset of people around him and chose art as a medium to state his case.
In 2015, he established ‘Art Kingdom’, an initiative to create social art to create awareness on environmental issues.
He began collecting waste materials like straw, food containers, water bottle caps and others to create art from plastic waste. “I created a 27-foot-long whale shark from plastic water bottle caps to emphasise the amount of damage they cause to the environment. The bottle caps made from low-density polyethene (LDPE) material are responsible for enormous pollution. Studies show that plastic bottle caps account for the third-biggest pollutants on beaches. Also, less than 7 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled. Moreover, they threaten to become microplastics with breakage, which eventually get consumed by animals and sea creatures finding their way in the food chain,” Gowtham explains.
However, the number of exhibits and displays of art from waste failed to gather the much-needed attention he anticipated. “Onlookers appreciated the art, but I felt it did little to change the mindset of people who had the capacity and could ensure the plastic be recycled and disposed of correctly,” the 28-year-old says.
So, for his birthday in March that year, he collected 45,000 plastic bottle caps with some of his friends volunteering for the collection to make art forms. “I prepared about seven art forms, and still they did not create the necessary impact. I felt depressed owing to my then financial condition and the deteriorating environment. I even felt suicidal,” he says.
Gowtham says that people who littered were carefree and did so without feeling remorse for their actions. But it was the environment lovers, like him, who were concerned and worried about the fate of the earth and human life.
“My art was not recognised or respected, the pollution issue remained unaddressed, and people continued to throw rubbish that was present everywhere. It pushed me into depression,” he says.
Gowtham spent days with the thought but decided to take the matter into his own hands. “I wanted to bring change in the world to make it a better planet,” he says.
So on 1 June 2019, he started the Walk For Plastic initiative by collecting plastic waste in his locality and beaches in the city. Today, his initiative has inspired cities across India and abroad.
Moreover, the revenue generated from recycling waste is helping to sponsor education for the underprivileged.
On his first day, Gowtham walked all by himself on the streets and neighbourhood, collecting plastic waste. After that, he returned home to post pictures of his work on Facebook. “I never aimed for it to become a movement but did it for self-happiness and mental peace,” he says.
He continued alone for the next 15 days. Slowly, his followers from the art fraternity and socially conscious persons started observing his work on social media. Some of his followers knew about his social art of using waste to bring awareness and began appreciating his work.
But his consistency in carrying daily cleanliness drives started inspiring others, and soon people joined him. “Within 100 days, I received 1,000 volunteers to join my cause, and they started actively participating in the clean-up drives,” he says.
Gowtham says that his day-wise posts on social media worked as a progress report, where the amount of waste collected and the number of volunteers increased steadily. Within 300 days, he organised two walkathons where participants gathered plastic waste along the way. “The 400 participants collected 600 kilos of waste within four hours on the event day,” he says.
So far, Gowtham has organised over 60 beach cleanups and hundreds of drives mitigating 19 tonnes of waste.
‘For A Cleaner Planet’
The Facebook posts helped spread his message across localities, residential areas, public parks and beyond. “People from different parts of the city started adopting the cleanup drives in respective areas. Today, we have volunteers from geographical locations like Andaman and Nicobar Islands and countries like Philippines, Malaysia, South Africa, USA and the UK,” he says, adding, “The initiative has spread across 20 cities in India and 13 countries across the world.”
Gowtham organises the cleanup drives daily. “Unlike other cleaning initiatives mostly restricted to weekends, our volunteers conduct them daily and across different times of the day,” he says.
The social worker feels that his drive gained quick popularity as many people related with his sentiments and the cause.
“The concept of cleaning plastic and recycling it attracted people. The social and local media helped to spread the message as well. The tracking of waste collection and consistency brought more people together,” he says.
G Jagannathan, one of the volunteers from Guduvanchery, says, “I have been following Gowtham’s social art for the past few years on Facebook. But I could not join his cause. Eventually, I requested him to start the cleanup drive in my location in Villivakkam. I have been a part of this initiative since then.”
Gowtham and hundreds of active volunteers have also helped the collection of Rs 85,000 from recycling plastic waste.
“The volunteers decided to donate the money to rag pickers and workers. The NGO is sponsoring the education of a girl and is raising funds to help more. We have helped one Tamizh Mozhi, a student of Class 8 and daughter of a sweeper with a bicycle, as she cannot afford to travel by public transport. Additionally, a list is prepared to identify underprivileged and single mothers who need financial help to educate their children,” he shares.
Deepika Shree, a Class 6 student at government high school, supported by Gowtham’s initiative, says, “My mother is a sweeper at the government medical hospital, and my father is a daily labourer. We are not financially well off. My mother came across one of the volunteers, Anand, and shared our plight. Anand suggested sponsoring my education.”
She adds, “I aim to become a doctor one day.”
While his effort has evolved for the better and sees people joining his cause, Gowtham says some people continue to question his work. “People often ask why I do the job of a ragpicker when a dedicated staff appointed by the civic body does the same? They consider that cleaning waste created by the privileged class is the ‘job’ of the underprivileged. I want to break the stereotype. Everyone litters and contributes to rubbish and its responsibility of cleaning should be shared equally. It is not a job of a particular section of society, and I believe it to be a form of modern untouchability that needs to be eradicated,” he notes.
Gowtham hopes that his initiative inspires more people, eventually leading to a 100 per cent litter-free community and the world. “I hope my work helps to change the mindset of people, become compassionate towards the environment and make this planet more liveable,” he says.
Edited by Yoshita Rao