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An interview with Garima Poonia: “For me plastic is not the main problem. It is a symptom of a problem that plagues our world today.”

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By Praveen Gupta, Garima Poonia

· 11 min read

Praveen Gupta interviews Garima Poonia, who engages in an inspiring project endeavoring to keep the Andamans - an archipelago in the northeastern Indian Ocean - pristine and trash free. A big chunk of the trash is plastic that ends up from faraway places with the ocean current. Praveen believes this is a  very compelling case for:

  1. Women as caretakers of biodiversity and guardians against pollution.
  2. Entrepreneurial mitigation of the climate crisis powered by the young inheritors of the planet.

About Garima

Garima Poonia is founder of The Kachrewaale Project (TKP) – Andaman Islands’ first solid waste management (SWM) project aimed at reducing methane emissions and marine pollution. The project undertook one of Andaman’s first underwater clean-up drives to mitigate climate change via conservation of coral habitats.

Garima is also a Program Director of The Kachrewaale Foundation – India’s first such program on ocean plastics' recovery and advocacy. It is conducting a study on marine litter to understand the origin and types of plastic that come to Andaman beaches, and is also creating long-term frameworks for marine litter recovery and funding, applicable to coastal areas in India. It generates awareness regarding the marine litter crisis in the Andamans for local communities and people from south-east Asia.

The interview

PG: What beckoned you to the ocean?

GP: I hail from north-western India, my father from Rajasthan and mother from Haryana. Most of my school vacations were spent in a village in Rajasthan, where to date, there is no public transport connectivity.

In 2017, I had just wrapped up a project in Jamshedpur, focused on revamping the city waste management system by inclusion of waste pickers. My parents and I were planning a vacation after this, and I had wanted to learn scuba diving for a long time. That was the first time I came to the Andamans, in Feb 2017. As far as life-changing moments or trips go, this was one of those, and more. It was the start of a journey, as much within as outside.

I have several beautiful memories from diving. However, one that stands out is when I was swimming in the ocean, between two dives. No scuba gear, just a mask and fins. It was the first time in my life I had swum in the open ocean, by myself. The ocean was very kind, crystal clear, a bright sunny day, and waves that were like playful and gentle nudges. I looked at the bottom of the ocean, and there were no fish, but just the way the sunlight entered the ocean and turned into columns of golden lights, sharp and fading at the same time, it was an endless moment. The taste of salt in my mouth, the warm embrace of the ocean, the blues, the sound of the ocean, these experiences can never be translated into words or language. 

I was content but then came a huge school of Moorish idols. Hundreds. A few meters below me. Just as I thought the ocean had gifted me enough, came a giant school of hundreds of Barracudas. Thin, long fish that were about a meter long, with thin, straight lines, parallel to each other, on their bodies.

What I felt in those moments was an unending awe for the ocean, for this world. But there was one last spectacle. Thousands and thousands of diamonds or mirrors started coming towards me and were slowly all around. Only when they came closer, I saw that they were small silver fish, reflecting sunlight like the shiniest jewels. I was swimming right in the middle, surrounded. It is in moments like these that one gets a glimpse of God. Without realising it, I did.

Someone who hails from the desert had found love in the ocean.

PG: And what got you back?

GP: Perhaps my first conscious memory of the sea is from Kanyakumari and then Mumbai. I was perhaps 3 years old when I visited the former, an ocean raging in waves. In Mumbai, I remember sitting on the beach and feeling delighted with how the waves kept coming at me. My parents had to work really hard to keep me from walking off into the water. My father learnt to swim in a waterfall, after nearly drowning twice. When I was five, my sister and I were thrown into the deep end of the pool. We learnt the same way he did.

Swimming and spending time in the water quickly turned into the best play time for me. As I grew up, watching shows about the ocean on Nat Geo or Discovery, reading about the ocean, and simply thinking about it, created a longing to be near it. The desert in me longing for the ocean that covered it once, millions of years. Call it fantastical thinking. But it was there, and scuba diving was simply an excuse to spend time in the ocean. The trip to Andamans just put a seal on it. It ensured that I was so entranced that I would come again. And with the aim of doing something for it.

PG: What is 'The Kachrewaale Project' about?

GP: I never thought I would have a foundation of my own. I started ‘The Kachrewaale Project’, as an initiative aimed at finding and implementing solutions to the vast problem of waste in the Andaman Islands. It was very shocking to me that such a gorgeous and fragile place had no systems in place to manage waste. Burning and dumping were rampant. I had seen dumping grounds before, but somehow even a small dump in this beautiful place had a much larger impact on me than what I had seen in urban, mainland India.

Within a few months of its inception, the project was able to successfully implement a pilot, wherein waste from rural Andamans was shipped off to the mainland. It was the first time in the history of rural Andamans that something like this had happened. The system was also incorporated and scaled by the local government.

Today the Project has grown into the Kachrewaale Foundation. The Andaman Islands have gently but firmly guided our decision to continue working on preserving this unique ecosystem by trying to reduce the impact of ill managed waste. Our latest program is about understanding the scope of marine litter, especially plastics, that travel thousands of kilometres from nearly twenty countries, to land up on the shores of Andamans.

Our conservative estimate after this project is that the islands receive hundreds of kilos of marine litter every week, perhaps even daily. Beach clean ups and underwater waste recovery are among the ways we try to get as much waste out as possible. Such clean ups by themselves are not the solution, we need to stop dumping waste in the ocean and produce much less as a species. However, even if production stopped today, there would still be an unimaginable amount of waste in the ocean threatening both marine life and humans. And thus, we are trying to raise awareness among the locals, especially children, so they understand what they stand to lose.

Going forward, the foundation hopes to continue such work in different parts of the Andamans. We are also planning to expand our activities and interactions with locals and tourists alike. It is often the most fragile place, located in the remotest areas that feel the burden of ill managed waste. It is imperative that such places get the attention they deserve so they do not end up turning into mountains of waste.

PG: And how did the rights and duties related to waste management come about?

GP: For me, plastic is not the main problem. It is a symptom of a problem that plagues our world today: short-sightedness and greed. Hardly any of us realise the life cycle of plastics: how oil is extracted, how plastics are made, the twenty thousand chemicals used to manufacture such plastics, their impact on environment and human health, the energy footprint of mass-producing plastic packaged goods and transporting them for consumption to different parts of the world.

The first time I found out that not all plastics are recyclable, I made some drastic changes to my lifestyle. In nature, nothing goes to waste, everything is truly circular. Waste is a complete anti-thesis to a circular system. It has also been, one of the most neglected areas of intervention when it comes to climate change. It was all these thoughts that drove me to understand this problem and try to find solutions. Both at a personal level and at scale. I have moved to making my own bath powders, shampoos, cleaning agents, mosquito repellents etc, in an attempt to live a more mindful life, and to advocate the same.

PG: The corals faced two massive bleaching events in 2010 and 2016. This being an El Nino year – does it scare you?

GP: After COVID, in certain areas, we have seen some corals recover. And even fish life seems to have recovered a little from before, at certain reefs. The monsoons have come now, and not much diving will happen till about October. I am not scared. I am terrified. What will we see in October? Or next year? Documentation about reefs in the Andamans is sparse. Will this turn into another anecdote that no one will care about?

This summer, there were several nights I had to sleep in wet clothes, or on the floor, just so I would feel less heat. I have never felt like this in the Andamans. I wondered, what the corals and the fish were feeling. When we get a fever, a spike of one or two degrees can make functioning very hard. And if that sustains over days, we humans are left utterly spent and exhausted, and if the fever doesn’t go down, we can die. Imagine what marine life must be going through.

Weeks and months of high temperatures, days when we entered the water and we felt it was too hot. As per the visual observations of some divers, some of the corals had the kind of colours they show just before bleaching or dying - a last cry for help visualised in the documentary Chasing Corals. So, they are shouting, screaming as well as they can, telling us they are dying. As one person, as one foundation there is only so much that can be done.

We are not just who we are as singular people. We are all made up of all the relationships we have. Not just with humans, but with other creatures we share this planet with. I am scared of coming back and finding a part of myself missing. Of finding fewer corals, fewer fish, and less life in the ocean.

PG: Does the prospect of rising seas worry you? How about the locals?

GP: Yes, ever since I first visited the islands, I have wondered how much time they have. As per an IPCC report, the islands may not be habitable by as early as 2050. Neil, the island where most of Kachrewaale’s work is based out of, does not have much high ground. Several islands in the Nicobar group of islands are also very flat. Sadly, however, when it comes to the locals, there is hardly any awareness about this. And it’s not just the prospect of rising seas.

As the temperature rises, the ocean chemistry changes in many ways. We are losing more and more marine life. The locals as well as the tourist industry are heavily dependent on the ocean for food and tourism. Who will come to Andamans if the corals are all dead and there is hardly any aquatic life? How will people adapt – when more than 90% of the population depends on fish as a main source of food?

PG: What next?

GP: When Kachrewaale started as a project, I had not started registering a foundation. It was only through the work that I realised that the islands need more systematic intervention with respect to waste management. 

Our latest program is focused on understanding marine litter, as a country we know so little about the waste that comes to our beaches from other countries. Further, recovery efforts are few and far between and often do not focus on what happens to the waste once it is recovered. There have several instances across India where money and resources have been spent to clean beaches or sometimes to recover ghost nets, but once recovered, all the waste is left at the beach or best case, diverted to a landfill.

For the immediate future, a core focus area for the Foundation is to design and set up systematic interventions for marine litter. This also means that we will be showcasing the unique data we have collected with regards to marine litter, to different agencies and government departments so it can be used for policy interventions. This goes hand in hand with the work we are doing with the local community.

Children have been an important part of our activities and this year we have piloted some activities with them wherein some of them got to dive and see corals for the first time. We have taken them for beach clean ups, and informative sessions about the ocean. We want to scale these initiatives, so they have a chance to look at the ocean as more than a commercial resource that provides food and makes marine tourism possible. It is our hope that they will come to care for their islands a little more. 

In the long term, Kachrewaale may also take up similar work in other remote parts of India where waste management remains a dream. We like to work in areas that are tough, challenging, and where often nobody else is working. These are also the places that require the most attention due to their ecological fragility. 

PG: Best wishes for all that you aspire to do, Garima.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022, and the third most read in climate change during 2023. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he researches, writes, and speaks on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of the work.

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Garima Poonia is the founder of The Kachrewaale Project (TKP), the Andaman Islands’ first solid waste management (SWM) project aimed at reducing methane emissions and marine pollution.

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