Ankur Bisen’s first book, Wasted, raises concerns about the environment, and in this interview, he tells Archana Pai Kulkarni why the handling of waste in India requires the finest management, and how, as responsible and concerned citizens, we need to accept responsibility for the disposal of garbage, if we want to be counted among the clean countries in the world.

The cover of your book has a child rag picker frolicking on a mound of garbage unconcerned about the hazards it poses. Is this apparent comfort with filth representative of our general attitude towards sanitation?

Precisely. Therefore, the question to ask is what prompts us to take such a casual approach towards an issue that is so visually disconcerting? It is here that the mental outsourcing of this issue by mainstream society through a flawed social contract, and the silent acceptance of the cleaning class as a vendor for this social contract to do the heavy lifting on sanitation delivery, becomes the central reason for this snap.

We are in the midst of a pandemic. Do you see us becoming more responsible towards the disposal of self-generated garbage? With people breathing fresher air, will there be a shift in the mindset?

We should not fool ourselves into believing that the clean air around us is a stable state. The urgency to bring the economy back to growth will make us go back to the previous state in no time. Yes, the lockdown has significantly reduced waste generated from industrial, construction and commercial establishments. But, waste generated from households that includes MSW, and wet and dry waste, has in fact increased. Also, perhaps we may witness an increase in medical waste as a direct outcome of our fight against COVID-19. It seems that the reduced stress on waste management from industrial and commercial activities has surely given a breather to municipal services to redirect resources to pick up waste from households in the city. On the contrary, a clean environment is a direct result of an artificial and unstable state for humans.

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Households should ideally roll up their sleeves and undertake waste segregation as a new area of interest. Segregating waste within the households on a daily basis into different bins will go a long way in removing biases and pre-conceived notions. Learning about recycling and reuse and taking up kitchen composting will play a big role towards creating an aware society. But, the patriarchal set-up of our families and the biases in our minds are so strong that I doubt it will happen.

In his autobiography, a Dalit author describes the appalling filth in which he grew up. It was normal for people in his locality, and left unquestioned. If this is how a lot of Indians live, how do we ‘pitch’ a cleaner life?

We should not fool ourselves into believing that the clean air around us is a stable state. The urgency to bring the economy back to growth will make us go back to the previous state in no time.

For this sad outcome, the culprit is the way Indian cities are designed and governed. This is different from how waste is perceived by society. We must look at Indian cities as those with cleaner parts and those with not so clean parts. Then, we must question why all parts of the city are not equally clean. We will come to this conclusion that Indian cities are not designed to be inclusive. In any big metros of India, 30-40 percent of the population lives in informal housing or slums. There is also the question of how the clean countries of today managed to extinguish slums that were the bane of their urbanism earlier. The issue of public housing or affordable housing, planning for public places, the financial and operational capacity of the local governance to govern cities glaringly stand out as the key reasons for this sad outcome for India.

Mahatma Gandhi reiterated that sanitation was a shared responsibility. While this message has clearly been ignored, his concept of co-operatives being self-sustaining economic clusters still accords a ‘holy cow status’ to small scale enterprises, preventing regulation. Your thoughts?

Ankur Bisen
Wasted by Ankur Bisen, Pan Macmillan India

If Mahatma lived in a free India, he would have been the tallest environmentalist in the world. In championing the cause of self-sustaining villages and human clusters, he was talking about circular existence one century before this term became a catchphrase. In the idea of living in harmony with nature in a carbon neutral manner was also his desire to protect and preserve the skill-based economy and entrepreneurship of the Indian village. In his idea of such a living, was his innate desire for equality. That is the reason he championed toilet cleaning at homes by self. India also needed industrialisation, but what was needed is to reconcile the two visions, but we have fallen short on both on many counts.

Ours is a culture in which only a certain community is entrusted with the role of clearing garbage. Even the wages for this hazardous job are alarmingly low, relegating the sanitation worker to the bottom rung of both the social and the economic ladders. How do we change this deep-rooted rigid mindset?

Entrusting specific communities with the task of cleaning was not unique to India in the pre-industrial world. Cleaning communities were the primary tool for sanitation delivery in Europe and elsewhere. But what was different in India was its dovetailing with a religious order. In other parts, say in Europe, the Church had such no role to play. Therefore it was easy for people to move in and out of the job of cleaning. The religious dovetailing of jobs in India made the caste system of the stratification of jobs rigid, thereby restricting the free movement of people taking up or leaving these jobs. It yielded a system that never allowed the pricing of the economic cost of managing sanitation delivery in India. Correcting this flawed social contract is not only crucial to solve the sanitation issue but it is a much-needed progressive route for the social development of so-called Dalit communities.

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In Mumbai, I lived close to a landfill. The very thought of an entire city’s garbage being dumped there was distressing. What are the alternatives to landfills?

Many alternatives. In fact, open landfills are banned in the clean countries of today (Sweden, Demark, Germany, Japan, etc.). Open landfills are termed as public health hazards and are illegal in these countries. You don’t need a landfill to dispose waste if you believe in circular existence. Closed scientific landfills that are developed as mines in which garbage is dumped and then gases like Methane are harvested for decades. It is popular in North America. Controlled incineration, composting, effluent treatment plants, resource recovery units are all methods of waste disposal used by most clean countries with adequate safeguards, operating frameworks, laws and guidelines. Whereas, in India, even the technology of waste incineration has faced many challenges that are less for these challenges and more for our lack of clarity on the operating model that will run them. The way waste value chain is managed by governance becomes the key reason and that, in turn, is the result of a flawed social contract.

Your book has made me think deeply about whether I should buy a new phone, just because I am goaded to believe that it is now technologically obsolete. With technological advancement, consumption and the creation of E-waste follow. How is balance possible?

Thank you. Raising awareness about such issues by highlighting their importance was the key purpose of the book in our fight against this challenge. Individuals taking up such behaviour is surely one way to look at it. But we are then dependent on such a willing shift of masses into adopting such behaviour to make any meaningful impact in the society. For E-waste at a country level, the issue is more about safe disposal of E-waste and for that India needs to accelerate the implementation of Extend Producer Responsibility or EPR that requires consumer electronics companies to recycle and safely process discarded E-waste as a certain percentage of their annual sales. To promote recycling formally, we need to put more choices in the hands of the customers through rights to repair and retrofit that will nudge companies to balance such rights over upgrades and replacement.

The Swacch Bharat Mission has created awareness about open defecation and its perils. Do you think it has failed to address the urban situation, where slums have become invisible entities, with no proper sewage systems? How can we tackle this problem?

Yes, you are right. The role of SBM can’t be disputed at all for its crucial purpose in creating mass awareness on this issue. Pre-2014, issues concerning sanitation rarely received any importance or urgency. However, the sole association of SBM with open defecation has limited its impact. Issues like affordable housing, urban planning, reforms in local governance, enforcement for sanitation, legislative specificity, resource recovery industry development are crucial for SBM and therefore a SBM 2.0 is much needed for the way forward.

We cannot expect all individuals to suddenly change their behaviour all together; such an expectation can’t be the starting point.

Though India’s E-waste is tackled in informal shanties in deplorable conditions, you see an opportunity to regulate these ghettos like Moradabad, with the union government playing a role quite like the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). What has stopped the government so far from creating active guidelines needed for their formal existence?

The wrong design of governance that manages the value chain of waste management in the country is the key reason why such an outcome has not happened. Waste disposal needs to be de-coupled from waste collection and up-streamed at a state level or federal level for such a scenario to unfold. Decoupling of governance for waste collection and waste disposal was needed and was done even in countries like Germany, Denmark and USA. Just like we don’t expect every municipal corporation to have its own power plant to generate electricity in the city, we should not expect every city to have its own resource recovery unit.

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We are used to dumping our refuse on raddiwalas, and expecting salvage value for our discarded gadgets and appliances, completely forgetting that we are generators of this waste and responsible for its safe disposal. Wherein lies the hope to overcome our tolerance of filth?

If we look into the history of post-industrial world order, countries have struggled with the wide adoption of much crucial and necessary social behaviour, but which society resisted, for religious notions, biases, etc. Legislation and enforcement are two starting points needed for society’s shift in this attitude. I seek legislation that can correct social contracts on sanitation delivery, and open the sector. Its activities should be priced and paid for by the society—very similar to auto insurance. We need to think about urban planning and affordable housing very differently. Apart from the sanitation mess that we see throughout the year due to informal living, the migrant crisis during the COVID-19 lockdown is a direct outcome of this flawed approach. We cannot expect all individuals to suddenly change their behaviour all together; such an expectation can’t be the starting point.

We have examples like Japan’s PETEC, where resource recovery is concerned. Sweden’s waste management system has turned it into a global leader. Do you see a regulated resource recovery system in place here?

India enacted E-waste management laws in 2015, for the first time, to process E-waste, and to that limited extent, resource recovery from e-waste has some sort of a legislative framework in place. But, many aspects that are crucial for the take-off of the industry are currently not enforced and therefore we are very far from it. Ninety percent of whatever E-waste we are able to collect is therefore processed in informal processing units. We have started to talk about organic manure, and the use of plastic in road construction. For the development of the industry of resource recovery, it must be an industry of national importance. It needs regulation, frameworks, operating guidelines and participation of enterprises on a wide scale. We need to keep in mind that resource recovery in not about E-waste alone.

Image Credit: Ankur Bisen

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