A little boy in shorts, around seven years old, opened the door. He rushed in to get his mum. Their peaceful, flower-ridden, three-storeyed home is at the very edge of a simple gated community adjoining a long high wall. On the other side of that wall is a large open acreage with clumps of trees, shrubs and wild grass leading all the way to Bengaluru’s infamous NICE ring road, an artery of commerce and transit. It should have been the setting for an idyllic childhood but the little boy isn’t even allowed to play outside, says his mother. A peep over the wall reveals that this is Nayandahalli, one of the biggest private recycling communities and one of the largest garbage burning fields in Bengaluru, where tonnes of waste is burned in a near permanent haze of smoking embers, mini hills of charred garbage and tiny ponds of black death. Bengaluru is at a crossroads where solid waste management is concerned. While it might feel like the city is still in crisis mode, there are many citizen-led initiatives that are demystifying the world of SWM and providing viable, scalable solutions to address this situation head on. The biggest indicator of this change is the fact that 40 percent of Bangalore segregates its garbage, much more than any other city in India.
The official landfills at Doddaballapur, Mandur and Mavallipura on the outskirts of the city had to be closed between 2012-2016 following protests by residents of the nearby villages. As a result, there is no destination for most of the city’s garbage. Informal dumps in this and hundreds of smaller sites in parks, disputed land, empty plots and public spaces have popped up all over the city. This failure in governance has led many engaged citizens to pour all their energies into spreading awareness and methodology on effective waste management. Mathematician, artist and full time solid waste management activist Lalitha Mondreti explains, “[T]he collection and transportation has completely failed. Second thing, there is no accountability. The third thing is that there are no destinations. Right now each ward contractor is paid a lump sum ranging from 10 to 30 lakhs per month based on the size and population of the ward. So the contractor doesn’t really have an incentive to collect segregated waste. If the contractor is paid more for organic or dry waste, then obviously he will try to take the waste in a segregated manner. With positive incentivisation they will be encouraged to do the right thing.”
But not everyone is as engaged, and for those that aren’t, helpless frustration becomes a daily companion. People from all over the city live around illegal garbage dumps and burning waste, affecting the very air they breathe. Eight-year-old Aratrika Venugopal complained about not being able to sit in her classroom because of garbage that is burned right outside, “I go to school at Vibgyor [Bellandur]. I smell the smell of burning garbage everyday and I don’t like it. So I often like to sit in the first bench so I don’t get the smell much, but there’s no difference. I feel kind of suffocated in the class.” Her father, Bijoy, who blogs on environmental issues, adds a sobering thought: “She has often complained of it, she is very sensitive to the smell of the garbage. I know of people in this apartment complex who have had to hospitalise their kids several times [for breathing problems]. She herself has been hospitalised four or five times in the last 8 years. Hospitalised as in three days in the hospital. She used to use a nebuliser for the longest time, of late it’s been slightly better because she is building a resistance to it, not that the garbage burning situation is any better.”
A common belief in Bengaluru is that the issue of solid waste management rests firmly in the hands of the street cleaners (pourakarmikas) and garbage collectors. In reality, they are just foot soldiers, following orders (or the lack thereof) from their contractors. Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor who has done intensive and sterling work for many marginalised communities, including street cleaners, explains, “I think the pourakarmikas are the weakest link and the most vulnerable in this whole chain. What is happening is they are facing flak from both sides, from the contractors and the residences, when they are actually not to blame for this whole situation. The contractors, they are in it just for the money and it’s a huge mafia that exists in Bangalore. Nobody wants to go pick bones with a contractor, because they are powerful and have political links. I think it’s also a sort of urban casteism, where you want someone to come and clean up your place but you don’t care if they’re being paid, you don’t care if their health is being affected. So we allow them to be constantly discriminated against and persecuted.”
Lakshmiamma (57) has been a pourakarmika for over 25 years. A widow for the last 18, she single-handedly brought up her two children, two nephews and a niece by cleaning streets from 6-11 am and then breaking stones in a quarry for the rest of the day. She has little faith in a system she insists doesn’t care about her. “The contractors and masters instructed me not to talk to any union activists. The new guy also came saying the right things that he will help us and that we should work together. Then as usual, they don’t treat us properly or pay us on time. Even now when we haven’t been paid for four months, the contractor will say that it is only two months due. Then who do I go to for help? The government doesn’t care, neither does the BBMP, despite trying to talk to them repeatedly. We sit in the hot sun and wait to talk to them and we are just shooed away by the watchman. What’s the point? If they pay us we can eat and pay our bills, otherwise we can’t, what to do? We never get holidays, not even one day a month. We get cursed if we even ask. Even for emergencies we don’t get holidays and even if we take one, we don’t get paid.”
Some waste pickers have used the platform of community radio to stand up and be heard. RJ couple Salma and Siddique are waste pickers who host daily shows on Radio Active 90.4 Mhz. Their insider insight into the intricacies of SWM is invaluable and they share stories of the recyclers in Nayandahalli on their series Dastaan-e-Nayandahalli. “I was introduced to Radio Active through Hasiru Dala. I slowly got used to radio and then started doing interviews myself. Then I got a chance to do a weekly show with my husband. But I had to take a break from that because of the birth of my daughter (who is now almost 4 years old). We still do recordings in the community and then send it to the station to be edited and aired. I used to do this waste picking work for over 10 years so I really understand all the details and problems of this work and the people who do it. So I am able to talk about their lives and problems because I have live that life myself. These people are also human and I love to share their stories. All I want from the government and BBMP is help to have a house and for my child to be educated. I don’t need or want anything else. I just want my child’s future to be taken care of.” In other parts of the city like HSBR Layout, resident associations have absorbed pourakarmikas and trained them and the residents in the right methods of collection and disposal. Unlike their BBMP or contractor employed counterparts they are usually given gloves and treated as part of the community rather than outsiders.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Bengaluru is far ahead of all the other metros in India when it comes to actual segregation. “We should take pride in the fact that we’ve actually moved very proactively towards a solution, and for a city of 10 million to make an effort to move towards solution where nobody else is even thinking about it,” says Sandya Narayanan in her typically blunt, considered manner. As a senior member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table, she knows a good deal more about the crisis than the average citizen. “You know Hyderabad is burning, Maharashtra landfills are burning, Delhi has issues. But Bangalore has taken a lot of steps to ensure that we’re in a really good place in terms of doing something proactive about it and actually taking steps when we see that 40 percent of the city is actually segregating,” Narayanan says. She and the SWMRT engage with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (the city’s municipal body), contractors, citizens and garbage workers on a daily basis. It is groups like this, 2bins1bag, Swachagraha, Bangalore Eco Team, Hasirudala and a good number of smaller resident associations that are changing the landscape of solid waste management.
Viable solutions are now in the public domain, tried and tested by these pioneering groups, so that the rest of the city can just plugin and play. Narayanan can’t believe people still claim ignorance, “If someone in this day and age in Bangalore, with the kind of decibel level that is around segregation hasn’t started segregating their waste, I think they’re like ostriches with their heads in the ground. The collection system is a broken one. But that is not an excuse for not segregating, because there are enough private alternatives today that you can manage your waste without having to give it to your collector, whether you’re an individual home, an office, or an apartment or big campus.”
She says that we could also take our own solid waste management to the next level by utilising composting methods. “You don’t need to be anything close to an expert to know how to compost. It’s just a simple small equipment that you install in your home, or in your community, and it’s doable. Like anything else, you just have to set your mind to doing it.” Mondreti elucidates further, saying,“Sixty percent of your waste is organic. A household of four usually generates 1.2 kg of waste per day. If you can’t manage that, and you are blaming a city for not managing 4,000 tonnes of waste per day, it’s not fair. People have a hesitation towards composting – they think it’s a complex or stinking process. Our kids think food comes from the supermarket. One week’s waste gives you half a kilo of compost, but with that you can grow healthy greens. We need to encourage and incentivise people to do this at the household and community level, so that we can save some of the Rs 700 crore that goes into Bangalore’s SWM budget.”
This model that so many citizen groups are following is also scalable, according to Narayanan. “If you look at single homes, we have more than 25-30,000 homes that have shown it’s possible to do. Especially if you have a home with a garden, it’s possible to manage your own waste. Then take the next size. If you’re part of a multi dwelling unit or a small apartment, again, we have any number of buildings which have shown us for years they’ve been composting. You move to the next level, very large housing complexes up to a 1,000 and even they have systems where they are able to manage their waste. Their housekeeping is trained, they have people come and set up the systems for them. Then move to the slightly larger context of your community or ward. We know that many wards have set up bio-gas units and composting methods. What is needed is a community that then sets its mind to work with that bio-gas unit.”
For some like software engineer and marathon runner Shilpi, even a ward isn’t big enough. She spearheaded a group of runners who hold event managers accountable when they are organising large scale marathons, getting them to reduce waste from a typical 5-6 tonnes to just over 100 kg. “I have been a runner for the last six years. Six years ago everything was plastic, everything was paper. People think paper cups are more eco friendly, but they are not. Lot of bottles get downcycled into some kind of product, and after a point you cannot keep downcycling stuff, it will be pure waste. The whole process of recycling plastic creates a lot of hazardous smoke. Nine thousand runners had run that first edition of Bangalore marathon in 2014 and the amount of waste generated was only 125 kg of paper cup waste. Food was served on steel plates with steel spoons and washed using bio enzymes. People did not waste food because we served them hot food in smaller quantities. If the Bangalore marathon which is handling 10,000 runners, can do it, then why not smaller races? So, for anyone who does race events in Bangalore, the precedent is set.”
In a city of over 10 million people, with piles of garbage, blackened or putrefying, dotting every neighbourhood from the plushest to the poorest, the garbage crisis and the apathy with which it is regarded sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem. But with thousands of citizens awake and engaged it remains difficult, but not impossible. Knowledge resources are easily available to anyone willing to make a minimal effort online. The on-ground effort is a little harder, given our inherent inertia to change. Narayanan explains it best: “It’s a problem which has to be looked at in the context of community – it’s not enough if just I do it. You can manage your own household garbage, that’s fine. But it’s like saying, I drive straight so there should be no accidents. There is always the unknown variable of a guy who doesn’t follow the laws who will come and hit you. So it’s not enough if you do waste management, everyone needs to do waste management.” What is also encouraging is that the BBMP, long viewed as a systemic part of the problem is evolving with the efforts of people like Sarfaraz Khan (Joint Commissioner for SWM and Health) who is taking strident steps towards collaborating with citizens for better reporting and more effective governance with his open door approach. This reporter tried to meet with him to get the BBMP perspective but he was unavailable at the time of filing.
It’s up to every citizen of Bengaluru to ask themselves the hard questions and make the changes that will stir them out their comfort zone and their city away from being a passive lump at the crossroads of better governance. So that every child can play outdoors without the familiar waft of burning garbage confining them to their rooms or playing on their parent’s fears.
Bangalore is Burning was commissioned by Jhatkaa, a Bangalore based NGO to support their national campaign on air pollution. You can check out their engagement with garbage burning in Bengaluru here. You can read more about the accompanying photo exhibit in this Live Mint article.
An edited version of the text has appeared in a feature on the Hindustan Times.