A rooster might miss a day or two to “cock-a-doodle-do” but the sound of brooms sweeping dirt off the city roads doesn’t. Out on the streets before sunrise, all across Bengaluru are men and women in green coats with broomsticks in their hands, all set to fight a modern-day battle. Garbage. They are here, there. Everywhere.
This man-made quandary has become difficult to tackle across nations. With the current world population of 7.8 billion, the amount of garbageproduced is staggering. According to statistics, by 2050, the global waste levels will reach 3.4 billion tonnes a year.
The last 100 years have proved to be revolutionary with the fast-moving technological advances in various fields. To name a few, man landed on to the moon, reached the deepest parts of the ocean, and created robots to work for us. Amongst all these gigantic inventions and discoveries, did we fail to find a solution for a simple problem? Or have these human achievements become a major cause for an irreversible pandemic?
How does a city, well known as the Silicon Valley of India, deal with such a menace? The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is facing the task of answering all these questions through its actions along with many other private and public garbage warriors. BBMP is the fourth largest municipal corporation in the country, responsible for a population of 6.8 million in an area of 741 sq.km.
Pointing fingers at others seems to be particularly true in the case of citizens of Bengaluru when it comes to waste management. Is the civic body made to be the scapegoat or are we as people too egoistic to self-blame for turning the once “Garden City” to “Garbage City” it has become today?
The sudden rise in population has only added more woes for the city. In recent times, with the technological breakthrough, urbanisation, and globalisation, Bengaluru has got many titles such as the “leading start-up hub of the nation” to the “pub capital of Asia.” How does a city which was once famously known as a pensioner’s paradise with salubrious weather cope with so many changes?
This urban issue is three dimensional: garbage generation, collection, and disposal. Garbage management has become the biggest challenge for the citizens as well as the authorities concerned, as the city generates nearly 6000 tonnes of waste every day. While people blame the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) for not clearing up the mess, the authorities feel that the people are irresponsible and lack civic sensibilities.
Women In Green
“We have no security doing this messy job even after working for more than 20 years. Our salary is supposed to be Rs.18,000 but we mostly get paid only half of it,” says Kamalamma, a pourakarmika.
Every morning in this big city, these are people whose day starts much earlier than many of itscitizens to keep our surroundings clean. These unrecognised, underpaid soldiers of cleanliness in public areas bear the brunt of trash produced and blatantly thrown away by each one of us.
Have you ever wondered the conditions they are forced to work in? Does this job provide for their families?
A fight for survival
As the population of this city has surpassed the 12-million mark, there are approximately 34,000 pourakarmikas in 198 wards. KR Market (ward 139), also known as the city market, has 459 of these workers, making it the most amongst all wards, while Sagayara Puram (ward 60) has the least with 55 pourakarmikas. The majority of these cleaners are women who tackle the load of disposing 5000 tonnes of garbage churned out by the masses every day. They work from 6 AM to 2 PM for six days a week and from 6 AM to 11 AM on Sundays with no holidays or leave throughout the year. Sweeping the streets, collecting the garbage from door-to-door, and loading them into three-wheeled auto trippers, are some the responsibilities they are entrusted with by the authorities.
A worker says that the public apathy towards waste management is not surprising at all given the fact that they blame the pourakarmikas for the mess. “People hardly segregate wet and dry waste. If we instruct them to do so, they behave in a rude manner. Most of them are unhygienic and yet they shout at us for doing our duty; arrogantly reminding us that we get paid to pick up rubbish,” says Mangalamma.
Another evident disadvantage is the lack of basic protective gear such as masks and gloves. One can often see these men and women segregating infected medical waste, glass pieces, and rotten food waste with bare hands which can be hazardous to their health. None of the civic workers are willing to comment about not having sufficient safety precautions while working. “Don’t force me to talk about it. I am scared of my superior hearing that you are putting me into trouble,” she said. Even the men, who double-up as drivers and cleaners of the auto-trippers, shy away from talking. “We are paid well, nothing to complain as we have become immune to all the stench,” said one driver reluctantly, as he constantly looked over his shoulder at the contractor.
Managing life with meagre salaries
“All of us live in rented houses; taking care of our family and education of children is an uphill task with the salary we receive. Sometimes we do not get paid for three to four months at a stretch,” said Chandrappa.
The contractors appointed by the BBMP bring pourakarmikas who are mostly people from the Scheduled Castes. They work relentlessly in all weather conditions for meagre salaries to clear up the city’s filth.
Why do they continue to do what they do? “Nobody will give us any other job and having done this for close to two decades we are used to the routine as pathetic as it may be,” said Girijamma.
Through the Yeshaswini cards issued by the authorities, most of them are eligible for free medical services from Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) hospitals. “I do not prefer to get any kind of treatment from ESI. They are mostly negligent and send us away saying they are closed. Who shuts a hospital at 11 AM?” says Purnima.
As of 2019, the BBMP had published a recruitment notification for 4000 vacancies in which aspirants could also apply online.
They admit that not everybody in a neighbourhood are rude or careless but genuinely respectful. “There are many residents who are cordial and understand the conditions we work in. A glass of water and a smile from such people is enough for us to feel content about what we do,” said Vimalamma.
“Be the change you want to see” – Mahatma Gandhi
Most people in the city are aware of the garbage situation and the challenges it poses for future generations. They seem to have many solutions which includes being aware of it themselves in the first place before pointing fingers at others. Do the authorities take suggestions of the distressed public seriously is a million-dollar question.
Tidy home, dirty neighbourhood
“Waste generated to a scale of this magnitude is appalling, but unavoidable. It is time for each one of us to be conscious and take steps to reduce our contribution to this problem,” said Rama Murthy, a senior citizen.
The mentality of people thinking about their own individual comfort has been passed down from ages. Our planet is the only home all of us have and keeping it clean is a shared responsibility. Never before has it been more important to care for our surroundings than it is now as we are experiencing many man-made environmental catastrophes. “As adults, we have to teach our children to throw a chocolate wrapper into a nearby dustbin and not to litter. Sounds simple but such lessons go a long way as they grow up,” said Mangala, a senior citizen.“It hurts to see people, particularly women, throw plastic covers filled with trash from their homes, on footpaths, road dividers or in front of someone else’s house. I do not understand this attitude and it is time we changed that,” said Madhusudan, a resident of Girinagar.
Does segregation really work?
The BBMP has made it mandatory for all citizens to segregate garbage into dry (to be recycled) and wet waste (to compost). The common accusation of residents in many localities of Bengaluru is that the pourakarmikas who collect waste every morning dump everything together even if the trash is separated. “Though we have two different trash cans for dry and wet waste, the BBMP workers put everything together into the push-carts. I have fought many times, but they argue saying it will be mixed anyway along the route to the dumping ground. Isn’t it mandatory to follow rules? Who keeps a check on them?” said Arpitha, a software engineer. Many observe that the BBMP officials and also the ground staff treat the lanes in which politicians reside differently. “How can they have a special status even in matters of garbage?” fumes Sahana, a millennial.
Since this method of segregation has failed in most parts of the city, the municipality is now considering making home composting mandatory. How practical is this solution? Will people be ready to accept this rule? “This is a great idea. Every ward should have a piece of land assigned by the government to compost certain dry waste such as leaves and vegetable peals and sell them back to the residents. They should appoint more civic workers to implement and regularly maintain such a disciplined process,” said Jagadish Babu, a resident of Banashankari.
Prioritising waste management crisis
India generates 63 million tonnes of waste annually, making it one among the top 10 countries with the highest amount of municipal solid waste. Innovative ideas which include active citizen participation to completely cease landfill sites from operating; should be the collective goal of our society. Technology plays a major role in achieving a greener and less- trash urban environment.
The government has been slow-paced in adopting innovative ideas and taking stringent action against offenders. “The administrators are neither considering the technological assistance offered by other countries nor are they whole-heartedly encouraging pioneering ideas by start-up companies locally. It will be disastrous if this continues any longer without them taking any immediate effective measures,” said Govardhan, a resident of Padmanabhanagar.
Garbage takes birth wherever a human being inhabits but not too many people know of its final resting place. Unfortunately, the journey of all things unwanted has an anti-climax. With India generating 63 million tonnes of waste per year; most of it is getting disposed of in our own backyard.
Where is our garbage going?
Once the garbage is unloaded into big trucks from the auto trippers, they are transported to dumping grounds, called landfills, chosen by the BBMP around the city. A landfill site (also known as a tip, dump, rubbish dump, garbage dump) is a site for the disposal of waste material through burial. Historically, landfills have been the most common method of organized waste disposal and remain so in many places around the world.
Since there is no scientific method of treating the solid waste, many unauthorised dumping grounds are cropping up regularly. Currently, there are six landfills which are a stone’s throw away from the vicinity of the city. A closer look at these places makes one wonder if man really is the most intelligent of all living creatures.
Hell on earth
Each day, it is estimated that more than 300 garbage trucks enter a landfill as they line up on the road filled with stench outside the quarry to haul the collected waste. It is the combined effort starting from the pourakarmikas, auto trippers, and the compactor truckdrivers who ensure the disposal of 5000 tonnes of waste produced by the citizens of Bengaluru.
The approach road to the landfill in Mavallipura, a village about 15 km from Bengaluru, is muddy and bumpy. About 100 acres of land was used by the BBMP for dumping the city’s waste. On reaching the site, a signboard saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted” is hung on the locked gate. Nobody is allowed to go inside without a permission letter from the Joint Commissioner of BBMP. A wedge of cattle Egrets, soaking in the afternoon sun, in the middle of a pond filled with charcoal coloured water can be seen beside the gate. “This site was shut down more than a year ago soon after the villagers held strikes because of the unhygienic conditions which affected their livelihood,” said a guard at the entrance. Have they cleared or decomposed every material, is a question he refused to answer.
Reports suggest that most of the dumping grounds were forced to shut down since they exceeded the maximum capacity of taking waste. Some people around such sites are concerned that the municipality has not cleared up the mess and tonnes of rotting garbage still remains inside its perimeter.
One site goes only to open another?
This trend of recognising an empty mass of land to shift from the one’s with over-flowing rubbish seems to have become a normal routine for the authorities. Bellahalli and Mittaganahalli near Yelahanka, is the landfill site currently being used by the BBMP.
One might easily mistake the Bellahalli landfill to be a sandy hill amidst lush green paddy fields. On taking a closer look, a large group of kites and crows can be seen hoovering right on top of the heap. Also seen is a queue of 10-15 green-coloured trucks facing towards the hill, patiently waiting for their turn to enter the junk yard. “People living around this area have to bear the brunt of all this garbage coming from the big city. Our lives became miserable from the day this activity started. We feel helpless, this is my home and I have nowhere to go,” said Kamalamma, a home-maker.
Geographically, these dumping grounds are usually surrounded by farmlands and the farmers here are the most affected. As the waste is unattended to and untreated for long periods of time, the residue seeps into the ground causing soil contamination, water contamination. Also, airborne pollutants are a hazard to the adjacent areas. This poses a threat to the lives of people, livestock, and crop cultivation. “The foul smell from the dump has become unbearable. The water from the borewells and nearby ponds have become unusable. People are falling sick. We have protested many times and yet the government continues to turn a deaf ear towards us,” said Ramesh, a farmer living next to the Bellahalli landfill.
Some of the villages affected owing to the dumping ground are Hosur, Mittaganahalli, Kannur, and Sonappanahalli. “During sunny days the stench is not that strong but it gets unbearable on rainy days,” adds another farmer.
Though this process has proved to be a nuisance for everybody concerned on a daily basis, there seems to be no solution to avoid it just yet.
The Garbage Trail
“Is this what we like doing? No.”
“Do we have a choice? No.”
“I wished for better things. But not anymore. They are my friends and we are all in it together.”
“This has almost become a 24-hour job. Driving in and out of the mad city traffic only to come and wait here for hours is a way of life. We breathe, eat, and drink in this stench.”
Who are the people talking here? What are they complaining about? These are the voices of men driving the garbage trucks, whom all of us hate to come across on roads, especially when we have to wait behind them at traffic signals.
A narrow lane off the main road is where all the trucks take a detour in Bellahalli, Yelahanka. They are parked one behind the other for half a kilometre before making their way into the dump yard. While the stink on this route from the filth nearby is nauseating, the truck drivers chit-chat beside the vehicles undeterred by the swarm of flies and mosquitoes giving them company.
There is a checkpost a few metres before the main gateway for the solid waste disposal. Stationed here are a few army men who make sure no outsider apart from the workers inthe dump and the drivers cross this border line. No photographs or videos are allowed and if found guilty of clicking, the pictures are deleted.
A separate area for unloading the dry waste is next to the main road. Boys as young as six or seven years of age can be seen segregating material such as plastic bottles, clothes, paper, and glass from gunny bags lying one on top of the other.
The National Green Tribunal had appointed a committee which instructed BBMP and issued November 1, 2019 as the deadline to stop sending waste to this landfill. It is more than a month since (at the time of writing this), no action has been taken to shut down the quarry.
“Is it also a mafia here, like in Italy?” asked Maxime, a French tourist. He was taking a stroll in K R Market with his fellow travellers to experience “Incredible India” by covering his nose as he passed by heaps of garbage.
“There are many remedies for this problem but the mafia will not allow it.” These were the words from the former Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy at the Press Club in
Bengaluru on June 19. Interestingly, an open secret making the rounds in this industry is the nexus between some officials and politicians, and private contractors known as the garbage mafia. For these men, rubbish is gold.
Recently, a raid by the Anti- Corruption Bureau (ACB) on the BBMP’s Bommanahalli zone office proved that they weren’t just rumours. Encouraged by the efforts of solid waste management officials, led by their Joint Commissioner Sarfaraz Khan, the ACB busted a 550-crore scam.
How is garbage a lucrative business?
The malpractice has widespread roots so blatant in nature with a network of money-hungry people. Most contractors are in charge of appointing civic workers for every ward and hence have complete authority over them including their salaries.
The workers in certain areas of the city seldom get the entire salary that they are promised. Since majority of these pourakarmikas are uneducated, it works in the favour of the mafia toexploit them. The number of workers or trips made by the auto-trippers and compactor trucks is always exaggerated.“Garbage can be converted into fertiliser or electricity. The government isn’t implementing a simple solution in a large-scale because the thriving money-making racket involves many powerful people in the system. Private contractors submit bills mentioning 10 truckloads of garbage instead of one, which is clearly illegal. Unless there is a political will to curb this mafia, no amount of blaming the public will help reduce this problem,” said Vijay, a citizen.
However, in the recent past the government has taken steps to counter this menace. With the intervention of technology, measures such as making attendance mandatory through biometric system for the workers, installation of GPS in all the vehicles to track their movements, has made it difficult to carry out their business.
The state government spends more than Rs.1000-crores every year on solid waste management and the Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa has ordered an inquiry into the huge expenditure incurred by the BBMP.
Reduse, Reuse, And Recycle
In a city which is famous worldwide as the hub for technological masterminds, is there a scarcity in addressing an issue that needs immediate attention?
The city’s young people have found ways to tackle one of the most serious environmental problems through social media, and they are not afraid of correcting the wrong-doers publicly.
“Not everythingis lost. We are like the white blood cells fighting off a virus called garbage. There is hope and potential to set things right,” said Sandhya, a regular volunteer for the Youth for Parivarthan cleanliness drive. Non-profit organisations such as these are involving citizens to tidy up dark spots filled with garbage which help create awareness.
One of the most urgent necessities is to convince every person to lead a sustainable lifestyle. Companies such as Daily Dump are developing products that help citizens to convert wet waste into compost in their own house. To reduce the amount of trash being dumped in landfills, Citizengage is another notable organisation which provides door-to-door service of waste collection and segregation to convert them into compost or energy.
“We organised a procession of 600 to 700 people to inspire consciousness amongst people in our ward five years ago. Since then most of the vegetable, fruit and flower vendors have stopped using plastic. Regular checks from the volunteers help in instilling this habit among people,” said PHB Rao, a resident of Banashankari 2nd stage.
According to studies, 85% of India’s waste can be recycled and yet 90% of it lay unattended to in landfill sites across the country. By making a firm decision to generate a little less garbage each day and adopting scientific methods of disposing it of is the way forward for a brighter future.