Diamonds in the Dump-Yard

You can either cringe your nose at the sight and smell of waste, thinking it does not belong to your neat utopia; or you can get some dirt under your nails and find the gems of insights hidden underneath. The gloves are yours

WASTE has economic, historical, cultural and psychological connotations that run farther and deeper than the most stubborn plastic bottle lying supine on an ocean floor. In a conversation with Pratima H, author Ankur Bisen, author of ‘Wasted – The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change’ challenges us in his book and in this interview to let go of our hard-skinned assumptions and dig bravely for the real truth that a pile of waste is screaming every day. He urges people to buy waste and even pay for waste. Want to know why? Time to unclog our ears now

What made you write this book?
This work evolved over a period of time, since 2014. We had started to work in areas of sustainability for studying investment attractiveness where we explored the Economics and value chain of this industry. That’s when I started contemplating this thought – what if treated waste as a resource? I also got to learn about the impact of informality of the waste. Why can’t we make this informal to formal transition? Is it because of governance or social perception or social contracts? I started to piece together these thoughts along with the emotional dimensions of this subject. That’s how the book came into shape.

Waste as a resource – did you see any strong examples?
Look at Sweden. It has a state-of-the-art waste processing systems and it is importing waste. Waste is now a resource to eke out gases, raw materials and reuse a lot of the waste.

Has the book evoked any interesting reactions yet?
We released it four months back. We are now talking to policy-makers on the right kind of blueprints, initiatives and advisories. I have shared my ideas with sanitation experts and activists. Most say you have hit the nail on its head. No one has said this is not the ‘right way’. So that is an encouragement.

Did you start with any hypothesis when you began writing? How did it pan out?
Yes, from early on my argument was ‘this is the wrong way’. But I discovered the ‘right way’ during the journey of this book. What has helped me is learning from continuous references of nations like Sweden and Denmark. I also want people to look at waste generation in an expanded way. Right now, we look at solid waste only but what about medical waste, IT waste, automotive waste etc.? Each category needs a separate approach to disposal and a specific value-chain. All clean countries have a segregated approach which is where logistics and infrastructure play a very crucial role.

You point out India as a country among the top ten waste generators in the world. You also set the mood well by citing the case of Mathura landfill and ‘the silent acquiescence of the Indian society on toxic rivers’. So you saw examples worth emulating when we think of good waste management?
Yes, I looked at how clean countries have managed to treat the issue. Each chapter is narrated on a stand-alone basis. But I also wanted this book to be told in a simple way for multiple segments of society so not too much data or pie-charts – but more historical analysis parts and references – have been used in the book. There is a factory in Japan with a recovery rate of electronics – as good as 90 per cent. This is where technology and material science also plays a role.

You were very clever when you started a chapter with a scene from ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’. That’s where you touch upon ‘jhuggis, shanties and squatters’ brilliantly and also say that how these terms ‘reduce the expansiveness of informal living’. You also say that ‘informal living’ may be invisible and may appear cheap but not for its inhabitants. Your arguments talk about inclusive clusters. Please elaborate.

A lot of people in urban India stay in clusters – like the informal colonies you see in Delhi.  In Mumbai..There is so much unsold inventory and yet six million people are living in slums. Why do our cities lack inclusiveness? I argue about community-based housing and want to reimagine the chaal-system. Let’s build affordability and sustainable waste approaches in our cities. In our cities the public space can be redefined a lot. In Amsterdam, parking is expensive because they want to prohibit use of cars. The emphasis is on comfort-plus-sustainability. That’s a good approach. If we look at tribal communities there is private and public space demarcation. It is a good template for community bonding and affordable living.

We need a new lens and intellectual stamina for understanding waste – Ankur Bisen

Can you enlighten us on this new idea you propose – social contracts?
We need to pay for waste management. Cash for Trash – there is value in waste and we can pay for it. This is where EPR or Extended Producer Responsibility can be looked at in new ways. In Japan there are so many examples of the consumer paying for the waste management.

With just 39 per cent people having access to Sanitation, what is your take on this aspect of waste management?
Right now my argument is that society is casual about it. We have a parochial view. We need to be more responsible about it. The society cannot be expected to clean itself too. It is an infrastructure and utility play. We need to change the lens with which we view sanitation. There are many areas that do not link to sanitation but affect it. Like Urban Planning. I also believe that local governance and role of state actors and municipalities need to be assessed in a new way. We may have assigned more weight for the weakest members of the state to carry if we look at their budgets and capacities.

You also say in the book – ‘’Humans do not have the right to make an argument to resist industrialisation because they are an outcome of it’. What can we learn from ancient civilisations here?
The context of waste has changed so we cannot draw any lessons from our predecessors but we can certainly learn in areas of organic waste, composting and agriculture. Overall – there are two narratives to look at if we go one by one. The pre-industrial times show that waste was largely a denial issue. There was no plastic, only organic waste that was combustible and decomposable. So pits and landfills came up outside societies. This arrangement did not bother the normal eye. That’s how caste system developed in India. India and Europe had separate people assigned for taking care of waste.

In the post-industrial world, our consumption patterns changed. The complexity of waste also grew – with cars, factories, polymers, ACs, mattresses. Heavy metals and electronics. When the same system was subjected to receive complex waste, it could not catch up well. Some societies started to think of new ways like closed incineration. Every two decades, a lot of improvement happens and with every improvement, the smart societies realise that more segregation is needed. In India, we simply extrapolated the old system to the post-industrial world. That cannot last long.

We did not have the intellectual stamina to look at the problem in a new way. We still rely on caste system and sweeper system and open landfills.

Can start-ups help – the way they have upended transport, food and hospitality industries?
Yes, technology can play a good role in resource planning. Like – tracing and giving data on illegal dumping, highway dump-yards or forest dump-yards. Technology can also be useful in enforcement and monitoring – like- preemptive resource planning with GPS, surveillance and apps. A municipality, for instance, can make an app to manage waste better when there is a function at home or where construction debris is building up – it can ask which households are able and willing to pay for extra waste and take care of it?

The chapter on ‘New age waste – the silent waste’ is very fascinating. Are we buying too many smart-phones now?
It is all about a culture that is fixed on consumption. We need to make some hard choices now. Are we responsible to handle the consumption we indulge in?

What’s your take on the Swachh Bharat intervention?
Until 2014, there was limited conversation on sanitation in the political spheres. But now the issue is in the limelight. That’s a real step forward. But we need Swachh 2.0 to take care of execution and to expand the scope of this mission.

Is there enough CSR involvement happening in this space? Would it matter?
We need very specific projects where CSR can help. It can play a significant part in capacity-building, in reducing the cost of waste management (so that the entire burden is not on government), and in complementing the state capacity with something (like vans, containers and resources for segregation of waste). CSR can also help with miniature effluent-treatment plans. Right now most CSR funds go into awareness-building but what also matters is how the truck dumps the waste and where.


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