Ramakrishna Mission’s move to make residents take ownership of their waste is sociologically transformative

| Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Caste stratification has, for centuries, stigmatised manual labour in general and work related to waste disposal in particular

The Ramakrishna Mission in Mangaluru may have invented the most ingenious method to address an attitudinal problem embedded in the collective Indian psyche. During a cleanliness drive that the Mission organised, the volunteers identified individuals who dumped their household trash at 300 different locations in Mangaluru. The volunteers followed garbage-throwers and returned the waste at their doorstep. People threw their house trash despite the Mangaluru City Corporation’s door-to-door waste collection policy. But when the volunteers started returning their trash, 90 per cent people stopped throwing it in the open.

While effective solid waste disposal is a monumental issue linked to faulty institutional mechanisms and lack of efficiency of the municipal bodies, it is also true that as a society and at the individual level, Indians in general lack civic sense. There is no social prohibition or taboo against defecating, urinating, spitting or throwing garbage in public. To a large extent, the mass psychology of littering is linked to a sociological conditioning that can be directly attributed to caste consciousness. It is not a coincidence that a majority of the Safai Karamcharis — sweepers, sewage-line cleaners et al — in municipalities across the country hail from Dalit communities. Caste stratification has, for centuries, stigmatised manual labour in general and work related to waste disposal in particular. Hierarchically, manual labour related to plumbing, gardening, horticulture, fishing et al is clubbed in the larger category of occupational castes among the OBCs whereas waste disposal is an occupation thrust on the “outcastes”. In contrast, intellectual work is not just monetarily more rewarding, it has a specific stature and placement in the caste structure.

The everyday reality is that disposal of waste or cleaning is a menial, “dirty” task performed by someone other than the one who generates it. This is an all-pervasive psychology which prevents an individual from taking responsibility for the waste he and his household generate on an everyday basis. The challenge of disposing around 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum in 7,935 towns and cities is at the institutional as well as individual level. While municipal authorities have to step up their solid waste disposal mechanisms, individuals have to ensure proper segregation of waste at source and its recycling. By forcing people to take responsibility for their household waste, the Mission has performed a sociologically transformative service. Besides equipping municipalities and provincial administration with enhanced technical and financial support, such efforts need to be replicated if Swachh Bharat has to translate from slogan to reality.

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Published on September 27, 2019
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