Of late I have started getting messages on my mobile phone from non-governmental organiastion (NGO) Hasiru Usiru exhorting residents to sort out their garbage (compostable, recyclable and useless or thereabouts) before passing it on and urging that the neighborhood in question be made garbage free. The last time I met one of those who were behind this activist green organisation, I was in Bengaluru. So, maybe they have resolved afresh to give this garbage issue another go. Friends in the city affirm that slowly, little by little, one neighbourhood at a time, there is a move for a return to the old glory of an exemplary garbage-free city. Progress is slow, but the effort is there - most of it centred around getting garbage contractors, some openly term them the "garbage mafia", to handle garbage more professionally, taking it in a segregated condition to the new wet garbage processing plants that have come up. The old-style garbage contractors, with their town hall political links, are trying to scuttle the new system; and, for many wards, there are negligible or zero bids for the new-style contracts that lay down several parameters. They want to stick to the old-style contracts which were essentially transport contracts to take garbage to the landfills. Citizens who don't like to change are also remiss. Large apartment blocks are supposed to take ownership of their garbage and deal with contractors directly. The latter, who handle, segregate, aggregate and sell waste can and do make money. But, for apartments whose managements ask their members to please hand over segregated garbage, the end of the story can be totally regressive. Residents sometimes carry packets of garbage to out of the way corners of their neighbourhoods and surreptitiously dump them there. This is going back to square one, with the city being unable to handle the situation despite having all the rules in place. What keeps things from coming full circle is the nightmare memory of the situation a few years ago when agitation by villagers at the landfills (the overflowing garbage was a health hazard for them) prevented garbage trucks from dumping their stuff there and the roads of the garden city stank to high heavens, mired in their garbage. The processing plants are still in the teething trouble mode. They keep getting unsorted garbage which messes up the adjoining new landfills and some do not have odour control mechanism in place.
So there is the fear of a return to villagers near the landfills putting their foot down and preventing garbage trucks from coming in. Most cities in the country have till now been unable to sort out the garbage problem. One city which has is Panjim, which has no landfill. All the garbage it generates is sorted and treated. But, if you take this as a small exception in a part of the country which is both highly educated and prosperous, then there is one more success story to take heart from. It is Pune, another city with a lot of techies and also social leaders, active voluntary organisations and an enlightened business community. The key to its partial success in handling garbage is a solution agnostic approach. It is willing to try out any idea and see if it works. As a result, a great mixture of solutions, a decentralised model of solid waste management, is at work, yielding an outcome which is still sub-optimal but way ahead of others. Some areas and wards have been made garbage free and the key to it lies in seeking to educate the citizenry. Some sorting is done by householders who are urged to do better, further sorting is done by doorstep garbage collectors in areas demarcated for the job, and then the sorted garbage is taken away, the volume reduced in some cases by compactors. The garbage collectors or ragpickers are paid a small sum by every householder and then make a bonus by selling segregated recyclables. Bengaluru can partly take after Pune, but its golden age of civic management was over a decade ago, when the public private partnership, Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) and the city municipal corporation devised the Swachha Bangalore initiative. Recalls V Ravichandar, a management consultant who was actively involved with BATF, the initiative gave citizens a role in cleaning up their own city. Its kingpin - or, to be more precise, queenpin - was the Suchi Mitra who supervised the door to door collection, segregation, aggregation and transportation so that by 9 am roads would be garbage free and black spots (garbage collection points) would be gone. The Suchi Mitra was a neighbourhood woman volunteer who maintained a log book to record things like local conservancy staff attendance and arrival timings of collection trucks, a complaints register and minutes of meetings with municipal health department staff. Periodic reviews by the NGO, Public Affairs Centre, showed that the system worked. But why didn't it last? After a change of state government official cooperation with BATF ended and with it died Swachha Bangalore!