“Now look at the psyche of a city dweller. Every Mumbaikar wants garbage to be thrown outside the periphery of the city”

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Professor (Dr.) P.S. Vivek, teaching in the Department of Sociology, Mumbai University, is a well-known sociologist with most of his work focussing on sweepers, scavengers and sociological genesis of urban detritus. He recently wrote a book World of Garbage and Waste: A Socio-generic Investigation. Dr. Vivek, in conversation with Prabhat Sharan, spoke about the socio-economic reasons that have led to the mushrooming of the problem of garbage in recent times, in the towns and mega-cities of India.

Garbage has always been a major issue in our urban milieu, and though there has been a lot of talk on the issue of garbage, ironically, it remains one of the least understood phenomena. How does one define garbage holistically?
Lay persons usually refer to garbage as anything that is left over and not useful to individuals. In the view of a lay person, garbage comprises discarded items like food, clothing, materials consumed by individual households. But this is an incomplete definition, as it refuses to take into account industrial waste, agricultural waste and sewage sludge which form a major chunk of garbage in present day cities.

Can you specify as to the kind of waste that saturates urban spaces?
Studies have found that the wastes inundating a majority of the cities, both here and abroad, usually comprise non-durable goods, containers and packaging food wastes, yard wastes, inorganic wastes emanating from residential, commercial, institutional and industrial sources.

What about Indian studies? What do they reveal?
Indian studies clearly show that towns and cities have primarily three categories of waste, viz., household waste that is primarily leftover food, cartons, empty packages, glass shards etc. industrial wastes which are effluents and so on, and hazardous e-waste, bio-medical and debris arising from construction business.

In most urban areas, the civic bodies segregate and manage the disposal of the waste. Presently, the trend is to either dump garbage in a land field or destroy it through incineration. However, recent times have witnessed the popularity of garbage disposal via composting and vermiculture. But the problem will not be solved by confining or concentrating on finding solutions to the mode of garbage disposal.

Where does the problem lie? Is it at the disposal end, or does it run through the entire chain starting from consumption or production itself?
Most policy makers influenced by the present-day economic structures, tackle the issue in isolation. It is like six blind-folded individuals trying to describe an elephant. The problem is embedded in the chain of social anomalies intrinsic to recent socio-economic developments that have made garbage a gargantuan problem. And you can see the result in Mumbai, one of the dirtiest cities in the country.

In Mumbai, the civic body seems to be totally helpless, despite going on a buying spree every year purchasing all kinds of futuristic looking garbage disposal gadgets and sophisticated appliances.
That is the point. It is like going on administering medicines to people suffering from dysentery…but not stopping or plugging the release of industrial effluents into drinking water. And to top it, urging people to put up water filters, which in the long run leads to more accumulation of non-organic garbage.

Now look at the psyche of a city dweller. Every Mumbaikar wants garbage to be thrown outside the periphery of the city. The land field dumping, a traditional garbage disposal method is alright in villages where the quantum of waste is less with minimal hazardous material; but in urban areas it has led to the degradation of land resources, which in turn affect the ground water supply, and throws up noxious gases up into the environs.
A case in point is the far-flung north-west Mumbai suburb; we found that a corporate call centre complex constructed on a dumping patch, is now facing severe pollution of toxic gases. So the problem is not just at the end, but through the entire social dysfunctional chain, beginning from consumption and ending at disposal. And urban areas are the worst affected by this ‘garbage syndrome’.

Is the garbage syndrome a recent phenomenon? And why is it found more in urban areas?
Several factors have led to the growth of the garbage syndrome. One of the key factors lies in the haphazard developmental policies that are being shoved onto the people of this country, resulting in massive ‘internal diaspora’, which means an increase in population density. And then add to this…the consumerist ideology saturating the very urban air…nobody realises or even bothers to take into cognisance the changed life style of urban dwellers.

The cancerous development of garbage has its social roots in the consumerist life style, where concepts of saving, reusing and alteration have been replaced by the ideology of use and throw of goods that are mass produced. Coupled with this is the move to allow predatory nations from the West to dump their hazardous and toxic effluents producing industries here.

Going by the researches, your conclusions indicate a very dark dystopian future for city dwellers. So what kind of future do you envisage?
Nobody wants to talk about the dark matter waiting to explode. The present urban populace is touching 300 million in 5,000 odd town and cities, and the demographic projection is that by 2021, the urban population will be around 551 million. Concomitant with population explosion is the projection that the per capita waste generation will increase by 1.3 per cent per annum, with an overall increase of 5 per cent annually.

Now, take Mumbai for example. It is one of the international mega cities…and the city produces 500 grammes to one kilo of garbage per individual per day…every day the civic body disposes around 8,500 tonnes of household garbage. Apart from this, it has to tackle 2,500 tonnes of debris, 530 tonnes of e-waste with its 30,000 strong force, of which 10,000 are daily wage workers. And here let me remind that these figures do not include industrial waste.

Then you also have around one lakh rag-pickers who usually pick up recyclable garbage, which is reported to be having around ` 900 million annual turnover.

So the issue is multi-dimensional?
Certainly the problem is not simplistic. And it would not get sorted out by resorting to simplistic solutions like buying some mechanical contraptions or doling it out to some private firms and then bask in a feeling that ‘all is well.’

But what about the garbage management schemes touted by business houses?
As I said earlier, most of the schemes smack of blind-folded approach. And just look at the kind of solutions business houses have come up with. Privatisation of civic services, imposition of waste management tax, conservancy tax, toll tax (tah bazaari) penalty against littering, bulk garbage collection charge, buy back recycled product charge etc.

Across the world these myopic approaches have shown negative results. Of course for business houses these methods add to their profit kitties, irrespective of the fact that their methods have an adverse impact on indigenous communities. Let me cite an example. The much lauded disposal methods touted by corporates involve dumping garbage into the sea. This disposal has already resulted in more havoc because ‘garbage patches’ have come up in seas…affecting the marine life and the livelihood of fishing communities.

But there must be some way to untangle or cut through this Gordian knot?
As of now there is no foolproof method. Not just in India, but across the world. Due to lack of understanding of the system, one sees everybody jumping the gun and putting the onus on civic authorities…but whether it is civic bodies or private companies, the disease will not go away and the symptoms will keep on manifesting in different forms.

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