Tackling urban India’s garbage crisis

Narendr Pani | Updated on May 11, 2014 Published on May 11, 2014

Lost in haze The ragpicker’s role in garbage segregation is ignored in imported waste management solutions


A global practice cannot be uprooted from its local context and transplanted in Indian cities

It will be no surprise if one of the priorities of the next government is to deal with the country’s many urban challenges. Among the more sustained features of the 2014 elections has been the articulation of anger in our cities. In the search for quick answers to these diverse problems there is often a tendency to demand that global best practices be introduced in managing our cities.

It is, quite rightly, believed that there is a lot to be learnt from the experience of urban centres elsewhere in the world. But blindly accepting practices that have worked in other cities, especially those in the developed world, is not without its risks. If the imported practices are not in sync with the local context, the effects could be a worsening of the urban situation.

Among the more striking examples of such a failure of imported practices is, arguably, Bangalore’s garbage crisis. The Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) was set up at the turn of the century with a prominent place for persons from the information technology industry.

Given the global nature of that industry it was perhaps only to be expected that they would look to implement global practices with the engineer’s assumption that they are working on a clean slate. A system was thus set up where garbage would be collected from each household. And to ensure the citizens fell in line, garbage bins were removed from across the city.

Conflicting practices

The first conflict between this imported practice and the local context came on the simple issue of what were householders to do if they were not at home when the person collecting the garbage arrived.

The apparent solution was that they should continue to keep the garbage at home until such time that they were home when the garbage collector arrived. But this solution went against the traditional Indian family’s insistence on a clean home without similar commitment to conditions outside the home.

The popular response to missing the garbage collector was then to leave the garbage at the nearest street corner, ideally in front of the house of someone you did not like.

This problem was not too severe, to begin with, as it only concerned the garbage that was not collected by the official agency. But, in the longer term, another conflict with the local context became evident.

The new system removed the role played by rag-pickers. The fact that this was a source of livelihood for the poorest did not enter the picture. As long as rag-pickers were not seen, there was no reason to believe they could exist.

While ignoring the economic plight of rag-pickers losing even their measly earnings could be brushed under the carpet, the role they played in the older garbage cycle could not be erased without consequences. Theoretical constructs of waste management speak of the four ‘R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover (through actions like composting). The rag-picker played at least two of these roles by reusing waste as well as selling other waste to shops that would then take it to be recycled. In the process, she played an important part in the segregation of waste.

With the rag-picker removed from the picture, waste was no longer segregated. The quantum of waste began to grow. And the larger quantity of unsegregated waste exacerbated another conflict that was developing in the local context.

Resistance was growing to the practice of simply dumping the city’s waste into rural sites, thereby affecting the health of people in the nearby villages. And with more waste being generated, the villages began to use their democratically earned power to resist such dumping. With the collection being interrupted till these issues were sorted out, pavements and street corners across the city became sites for the garbage to be dumped.


A context-sensitive intervention in the garbage crisis in most Indian cities would recognise the role that garbage bins play.

If the quality of the waste bins and their location is improved, the chances of citizens dropping their garbage at street corners will be reduced. Better bins will also encourage rag-pickers to remove what can be reused or recycled, thereby reducing the overall waste that has to be disposed. The state can then invest in systems to destroy the remaining waste, such as incineration plants that will convert the waste into power.

None of this is to suggest that there is nothing to be gained from studying global best practices. But the most important lesson may well be that we cannot just take a practice out of its context and transplant it in Indian cities.

The most successful interventions in cities are typically those that first bother to understand all the dimensions of the local problem before choosing the most effective interventions, whether local or foreign.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

Published on May 11, 2014
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