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Garden city, garbage city

Trash management is reaching a critical point in Bangalore.

Every city has to mandate that builders and developers of communities, large and small, should provide proper on-site segregating and composting spaces. Every city has to mandate that builders and developers of communities, large and small, should provide proper on-site segregating and composting spaces.

Trash management is reaching a critical point in Bangalore.

In Mandur, a village less than 20 km from Bangalore, about 500 garbage trucks stream in daily in the dead of night, carrying hundreds of tonnes of city waste to the massive landfill there. Recently, in what is Bangalore’s biggest dumping ground, agitating villagers have blockaded the garbage trucks piled high with waste and demanded that the government find alternative sites for the city’s refuse. The authorities have responded in typical fashion, clamping prohibitory orders forbidding villagers from assembling or protesting. Dozens have been arrested and then released on bail. In an ironic turn of events, police now guard mountains of trash in Mandur.

Meanwhile in the city nearby, the alliteration “garden city-garbage city” is again rolling off the tongue. Mounds of refuse have piled up in many street corners because the private trucks contracted to pick up garbage have ceased to do so as they have nowhere to dump. Bangalore’s garbage crisis, its third in less than two years, is almost becoming a bi-annual drama where the lead actors — the city corporation and the state government — stir for brief periods, but have not been able to come up with any effective or long-term solutions. It has been over a year that the Karnataka government assured the villagers of Mandur that it had set a year’s deadline to stop the dumping and find alternative dumping sites.

Though it is just one of several satellite trash-dumping sites outside Bangalore, Mandur is fast becoming a symbol for India’s ineffectual urban waste disposal systems. It is a festering sign that Bangalore’s garbage problem could be a recurrent theme in other Indian cities as land becomes an increasingly pricey commodity — making landfill sites hard to find. As urban population explodes, trash management is reaching a critical point in several cities and posing an administrative challenge.

Still, experts say it is not too late and the challenge of garbage-handling in Indian cities is within reach of practical solutions. “Somebody needs the political will to execute the solutions that specialists come up with,” said Poonam Bir Kasturi, who calls herself “compostwali” and runs the Bangalore-based Daily Dump, which sells eco-friendly organic waste disposal solutions to households and corporate firms in the city.

Bangalore has still not become stringent with rules that require households and communities to dispose organic waste on their own premises through composting, or segregate other waste for proper disposal. The public is pushing back and only a tough law can be expected to spur habit change. Shops and establishments, for instance, still violate the rule that bars the use of plastic bags of less than 40 micron thickness.

Simple solutions could lend themselves to cities across India. First, the city’s waste collectors should put a stop to picking up organic waste. These have to be composted in houses or within building communities. In tree-lined cities such as Bangalore, where there is plenty of footpath space, all leaf composting has to be done locally. “While we do want to remain the garden city, lots of tree and garden litter cannot be carted away to Mandur, they have to be put to good use right where they are collected,” said Bir Kasturi.

Every city has to mandate that builders and developers of communities, large and small, should provide proper on-site segregating and composting spaces. The city should not be required to pick up organic and garden waste from housing complexes and office parks. Even in older communities where such infrastructure does not exist, the city has to place the onus on resident welfare associations to put the structures in place.

Plastic, glass and metal waste has to be compulsorily segregated and handed to independent entrepreneurs for recycling. This could well lead to entrepreneurship models requiring low capital costs. Where large amounts of waste are generated, such as frying oil from restaurants, vegetable waste from markets or sugarcane bagasse from mills, the situations have the potential to become mini waste-disposal businesses if managed effectively.

Bangalore, a city of 10 million, produces some 4,000 metric tonnes of waste daily. Nearly a fourth of this is plastic waste. Total waste could get capped at 20 per cent of the current quantity if measures are taken to segregate and correctly dispose at the waste generation point, specialists have repeatedly said.

In neighbouring Chennai, waste collection in prominent zones in the city has been tendered to private contractors (one contractor at a time) for over a decade through a public-private partnership (PPP). Private contractors are more efficient than city workers in clearing waste out of cities, said Ashwin Mahalingam, an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, who studies public-private partnerships in waste management. “Success depends on how the city writes the contract — whether behaviour (defining the resources allocated) or outcome (defining cleanliness) oriented. If cities put both in the contract, the inflexibility could make it difficult for private contractors to deliver,” said Mahalingam.

Indian cities could learn a lot from each other’s experiences as well as by drawing upon the expertise of specialists like Bir Kasturi and Mahalingam.

Karnataka is rushing headlong into crisis management but even so, a resolution to the city’s waste crisis may be at least a year away. Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy, who is the minister in charge of Bangalore, said the cabinet had just sanctioned approvals for four waste disposal plants in the suburbs of Bangalore. “I have told the BBMP (Bangalore city corporation) commissioner that he has the authority to take quick decisions on such projects and that I will back him with prompt government decisions,” Reddy said. At best, the four projects will take off after 10-12 months and can address only half of Bangalore’s waste. Reddy said he hoped the villagers of Mandur would cooperate until then. That may be wishful thinking. Surrounded by piles of stinking trash, for Mandur, a year may be a year too long.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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