Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dear Punekar, Please stop asking for more garbage bins in your locality

One fact we stumbled upon during a participatory process in the 6 administrative zones of Pimpri Chinchwad : Vast majority of people-who-own-laptops (sorry but using this demarcating factor as it is convenient) have absolutely no clue about the massive change in sanitation policies, and the shift to a more sustainable one, that is being undertaken by most countries in the world in the domain of waste management.

One is that any sustainable model of handling waste must include the segregation of dry and wet waste at source. The wet being all bio-degradable waste.. all food waste. Even burnt toasts. The dry being all paper, plastic, metal, etc. Even if the paper or plastic is soggy, it is to be counted under dry waste. Advisable to first rinse and dry the plastic bag before throwing.
Any policy on waste management has to make this as the starting point. Only if the waste in an area is segregated with dry and wet collected separately, is there any hope at all of processing it sustainably. Otherwise, all mixed waste goes into somebody's back yard, into somebody's lungs or intestines or uterus.

For decades, villagers like those at Urali Devachi have suffered the injustice of having Pune's "educated" housing societies sending all their garbage to their farmlands. Believe it or not, it all started without any formal arrangement. Trucks just showed up one day, emptied their contents into community property and left. Today, with practically every family member there cursed to die a painful death from disease or cancer, with miscarriages and birth defects rampant, with foul air to breathe all day, the usual soundbites I hear from "educated" Punekars that "we are providing them with water tankers, education etc na.. why are they being so ungrateful?" is very painful. I wish those people would try going and spending just one day and one night near the landfill site. And economically : who would buy any food grown in such an area? Pune has destroyed their livelihood too. This is defined as "structural violence".

Now, after very long struggles they are being able to make a stand and refuse to take any more garbage from Pune. In the past years, everytime their struggle suffered a setback, Pune rejoiced. Our papers wrote about how Punekars can heave a sigh of relief now that the villagers' protest has dwindled down and our trucks are free to go through and dump there. I've grown up reading and hearing this all.

And I guess that leads to the issues we have about garbage in our locality. Pune at present has run out of places to throw its garbage in. In all likelihood, some beautiful forest area in our vicinity is going to be converted to a landfill soon.

The solution to Pune's garbage issues is not to resume dumping in Urali Devachi, or any other area. We are living in a part of planet Earth that is plentiful; there is a local native population living everywhere, and practically no real "wasteland" to be dumping our garbage in.

The popular mental impression that we have of Western countries and Singapore and all having public garbage bins everywhere and therefore being so clean and civilized.. is, I'm afraid, mathematically unsustainable. They export majority of their garbage to Asia, Africa and South America. India also receives a huge chunk of it. The round-planet limitations kick in: We do not have any more poor continent left to be exporting our garbage to.

Plus, our garbage is.. fortunately in a way.. mostly wet-waste. Our economy is already geared to recycle most dry waste, IF IT IS LEFT UNSPOILT BY WET WASTE.

Americans might throw away their newspapers, cardboard boxes, tin cans, shoes, lights, tires etc.. in India each of these has a value and we recycle them. Most of the garbage reaching our landfills is predominantly wet waste.. if it is not so intertwined with plastic etc, large part of it can be turned into biogas and manure.

Europeans have been proactive in bringing segregated public garbage bins to their city areas. But getting every citizen to do that is still dicy in India. Available empty area is a factor. Here we have more people living in a city than they have in one country. Their solutions aren't designed for high population density areas like those in India, or where the waste is predominantly wet.

The solution that has been adopted by our governments, which is more suited to Indian context, and which takes into account the fact that we have more (wo)manpower than money or materials, is door-to-door collection of garbage, and at-home segregation. It translates to a much higher dignity of labour for wastepickers, as they can look into your eyes and demand that you segregate your waste before giving it to them. The collection system can track exactly who is mixing their waste and can get them to change their behaviour. Rather than having to spend all day sifting through anonymous people's garbage. All of this requires that we REMOVE ALL PUBLIC GARBAGE BINS, as these promote irresponsible mixing and unaccountable generation of waste, and it all has to be trucked out to a landfill. Many citizens are still blissfully unaware that there is a national policy decision to remove these.. that today one success indicator of a municipal ward is a zero-garbage-bin status (not too hastily done of course!).

As citizens, it is not our birthright to mix waste and throw it here or there. It is not our birthright to demand that the government make our mixed waste disappear from our surroundings, only to dump it into someone else's fields. It is our duty to segregate our own waste and ensure that all our neighbours are doing the same. The idea is to pass on an India to our children that doesn't have this or that waste lying around, because it was all processed and recycled back into the circle of life.

This is difficult to get done by everyone, but it is the sustainable, cheaper, just (no more Urali Devachis!), more dignified way among the methods presently available. The garbage in your area will stay properly segregated after collection only and only when majority of the residents in your area commit to segregating wet and dry waste at home and are consistent in their action. One would think of this as a challenge... but it is actually a low-cost, decentralized, easy solution. Behaviour change doesn't require Rs.1000 crore worth of bricks and cement and expensive engineering.

One very sad thing happening right now in Pune is that there is a constant, non-stop attack on local government authorities from the "educated" classes to destroy this sustainable model and resume polluting lands of more villagers, through restoring the large garbage bin culture. And, of course, everyone wants the bin placed such that it is within walking distance from their home, but still it should not be visible from their balcony/window/gate or within smelling range. Try feeding these parameters into a supercomputer loaded with Pune's street level and residential data, and it will crash. It is possible for a few people but not everybody. City authorities have to do things for everybody, not for a few. The task at hand to cover all households with door-to-door collection is a slow and long-drawn one, and is a work in progress in Pune that has already gone a long way ahead of other cities in the country. We are even well ahead of Mumbai in this.

At a location, after removing public garbage bins, there is a flux period when the residents / workers in the area continue tossing garbage out on the road where the bin used to be (let's call it nostalgia) instead of waiting for the door-to-door collection or ghantagadi to arrive. If this is not happening, then the solution is not to re-install garbage bins.. there is a very important reason why they were removed in the first place! The solution is to campaign for more complete coverage of ghantagadi / door-to-door collection, and to make all the residents of that area to STOP tossing the garbage out.. to segregate it, collect it and wait for the waste collectors to come and take them. Flats, houses and societies are supposed to start composting bins or pits where their wet waste can decompose without being a threat to anyone. The logical aim of a sustainable waste management policy is that wet waste must not be carried by any vehicle.. it has to be composted as close to source as possible.

There is often a chicken-and-egg problem : citizens say no one comes to collect trash so they throw on the road. Wastepickers and govt officials say that majority of people are not giving them any trash when they try to collect, or are refusing to segregate their waste into wet and dry. Some communication, synchronisation between the citizens and those who serve them, must happen. But in any case, a sincere request to not bombard your local ward officer with more requests for public garbage bins.


Apologies if this offended anyone.

Nikhil VJ
Resident of Pune.
Related links:
National Mission for a Sustainable Habitat, GoI :
The Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation(CPHEEO) :
PMC contact list:
Phursungi and Uruli residents live with stink, poor health
Video: Pune Garbage Dumping Crisis: Uruli Devachi & Phursungi Residents Problems-TV9 /part1
Villagers stop trucks yet again, Pune stares at garbage problem
Villagers around Uruli Devachi shunned by family over water woes

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