Last week, the front portion of Sneha Nandihal’s house in east Bengaluru's upscale Indiranagar locality was turned into a small landfill. Heaps of unsegregated garbage were dumped at her doorstep as her octogenarian mother watched on helplessly. Those who dumped it were allegedly the same pourakarmikas — or sanitation workers — and the contractor who was supposed to collect, segregate and dispose the garbage.
Ms. Nandihal, president of the BM Kaval Indiranagar 1st Stage Residents Welfare Association, was not at home at the time. She had spearheaded a campaign against the contractor who, she alleged, was collecting the waste from bulk generators (commercial units such as hotels and shops) as well and therefore choking the residential waste-management infrastructure. This was because of the lure of getting paid more for larger quantities of unsegregated garbage from the bulk generators, apart from being paid for it from them as well as from the corporation. Generators of bulk waste are expected to hire corporation-empanelled private vendors.
At the same time, the police spoke of the pourakarmikas complaining to them about having been "ill-treated" by Ms. Nandihal, who was accused of speaking to them disrespectfully, triggering their retaliation. The jury is still out on what exactly happened that day, but Ms. Nandihal’s confrontation isn’t a one-off case. Other residents, who have turned into activists to handle garbage collection and disposal woes, revealed how they faced threats and were often intimidated by the “garbage mafia”.
With the collection and transportation of garbage being a business worth over Rs. 1 crore daily, the garbage mafia — driven by contractors and people with political clout — has managed to stay afloat despite fragmented campaigns of citizen-led waste management programmes which make small but powerful waves. The residents, who have turned garbage warriors, are usually well-educated individuals. Some of them are well-travelled, if not having lived abroad, but are in an unfamiliar territory when dealing with grassroot politicians or government officials.
One such citizen activist, who wished anonymity, recalled an incident in south-east Bengaluru six years ago. “The contractor who was supposed collect residential waste was concentrating on the bulk generators, which he wasn’t supposed to. He was charging them for his services, but would cite lack of time and resources to collect from residential units. We got another contractor appointed to collect from the bulk generators,” she said.Threat calls
“The new contractor called me to say that he had received a call from the old contractor saying his head would be found in the same garbage he is managing and asked me what he should do. I said he was free to back off as I couldn’t promise him any protection,” she recalled.
In another ward, a resident said a relative of the contractor had started charging them for collecting waste because the contractor had shifted his resources to illegally collecting from bulk generators. “This is the mafia we are talking about — paying an unauthorised person for a free service.”
Nalini Shekar, co-founder of the waste-pickers’ non-profit organisation Hasiru Dala, has had her share of phone threats. “There were times when our vehicles were hijacked. Our waste pickers' cycles have been taken away,” she remembered, after which she sought legal recourse.
“If these tactics fail, they resort to spreading rumours about us mixing waste or dumping waste into lakes. But it is a free market. If people want our services, they will come to us. We have close to 3,000 people working with us. So we take these things as an occupational hazard,” Ms. Shekar added. Often, such threats dissuaded the well-intentioned from taking on the garbage battle, but there was a flip side as well. “We are trying our best to work with the citizens. Officials are part of local WhatsApp groups wherein residents can directly coordinate with them. But they cannot expect instantaneous responses,” said a senior official from the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike .
The conflict is not only with the administration; more often than not, some garbage activists end up in conflict with even fellow residents, especially as they try to enforce judicious segregation and waste management mechanisms.
N.S. Mukunda, founder of Citizen Action Forum, said the problem with the new-age citizen activists was that while they were comfortable working with the bureaucrats, they did not engage with the councillors and the political class. “Many of them seem to have a negative image of politicians and try to keep them out, which will result in a backlash. Probably the answer is to be part of the democratic process,” he said.Allegations ‘laughable’
‘But Priya Ramasubban, a filmmaker and founding trustee of the Mahadevpura Parisara Samrakhsane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti, said allegations of aggression against them were “laughable.” “It takes a great amount of time and effort to run behind officials to get them to work. Involved citizens can’t just sit around twiddling their thumbs waiting for change to happen ...,” she said. Sarfaraz Khan, Joint Commissioner, Solid Waste Management, BBMP, said the Palike was in the process of strengthening its resources to cut down on dependency on contractors, while also introducing technology-based interventions in existing contracts.
However, he stressed the need for citizens to work with the government, and not parallely, a point Kavitha Reddy, associated with the Congress, echoed.