'Garbage out, garbage out' by C.K. Meena

C.K. Meena is a columnist in The Hindu, one of India´s biggest news papers. She was my teacher when I took up a certificate course in Journalism and we soon became friends. We keep in touch and she sends me her features by email. Her writing is a real piece of Bangalore and makes me feel like I might, just for a few minutes, be there. She has kindly given me permission to share her latest feature article on my blog.

Did you buy a ‘green’ Ganesha instead of the popular POP one? If so, the recent wave of eco-fervour that washed over our city must have swept you off your feet. (POP, if you’re wondering, is short for Plaster of Paris.) But there’s no need to feel virtuous. A plain clay idol is just a tiny step in a long and formidable journey towards a zero-garbage city.

Zero garbage — pinch my arm, somebody, for I must be dreaming. But I cannot be if I’ve received a wake-up call, as have you all, from the doughty villagers who rose up as one man and stopped us ‘cityzens’ from polluting their homes. I salute them. Those long-suffering victims of our indolence have forced us to deal with our own dirt. We can no longer brush it under the carpet. The new mantra: recycle or perish.

It is unfortunate that it should take a crisis to bring us to our senses. The mammoth garbage catastrophe has virtually been the elephant in the room: everyone studiously ignored it although it loomed large, swishing its trunk about our heads. Sweepers struck work, protests at landfills reached a crescendo, our streets were overrun with rubbish, and we shut our eyes tight and desperately pretended that the elephant wasn’t there, but suddenly it trumpeted mightily, and everyone started jumping about like chickens with their heads cut off. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.

Oh my, oh my, what panic. Politicians, afraid to offend Bangalore’s sizeable voting population, have been falling over themselves to clear our mess. The authorities came up with quick-fix solutions, while science and industry offered long-term ones. But this flurry of activity, this cacophony of good intentions, clouds the issue somewhat. Take a look at the string of plans and suggestions being announced one after another. Acquire 200 acres outside the city limits to dispose of waste ‘scientifically’. Identify one plot in each ward where waste can be segregated and disposed of. Build biogas plants for wet waste. Urge apartments, hotels and marriage halls to set up their own biogas units. Order individuals to segregate their waste at source, and fine them if they don’t. Turn non-segregated waste into electricity. Can you see multiple contradictions crashing into one another like a traffic pile-up? If we try to do everything all at once, nothing will get done.

Let us examine the proposal to identify an empty site, in every ward, in which to set up a waste disposal unit. Experts say we “only” need a 30 by 40 site for each unit. I’d be very surprised if anybody found spare land the size of a thumbnail in any ward in this city. Every square millimetre is built upon or waiting to be built upon. Even government land is not sacrosanct. When RWAs are clinging on to neighbourhood parks for dear life and hawk-eyed citizens are pouncing on those who try to snatch away their lung-spaces, can we hope to find vacant plots going a-begging?

Clarity is what we need. A core group should meticulously work out a detailed POA so that projects are not duplicated and don’t operate at cross purposes. Instead of searching for new landfills our aim should be to do away with them altogether. Stop dumping! Let’s join hands with the protesting farmers! Okay, I’m getting carried away, but that’s because I, and many of you, I’m sure, have been yearning — hopelessly, we thought — for a time when a concerted and serious effort would be made to sort out this recurrent problem. I am secretly delighted by the decision to penalise those who do not segregate their waste.

I believe the sole, unavoidable way out is for every individual to sort wet and dry waste, at the very least, if not sub-divide the dry into paper, plastic, metal and e-waste. Some of us have already been doing our bit, and we were lone voices in the wilderness. For over a decade I’ve been carrying my own reusable plastic bags when going shopping, and futilely separating biodegradable from non-biodegradable waste — futilely because it gets all mixed up in the garbage truck. When a new food court with corporate offices atop it was built a kilometre away from my flat, my keen eye spotted three separate bins there for bio, non-bio and e-waste. I used to get a kick out of dropping my used CDs and the dead cells of clocks and torches into their designated receptacles. And now there are only two. The e-waste bin has been removed. Probably no one used it but me.

Volunteerism is commendable but just a drop in the ocean. Floating lazily on the ocean are millions of slobs who cannot be bothered to change their habits. There is no point in reminding them that it is our Constitutional duty to keep our environment clean. Only a swift kick in the pants, i.e. a penalty, will stir them to action. Come October 1, every household in our city must begin segregating its garbage or be fined up to Rs 100 — per day, presumably. It sounds almost too good to be true. Will the slobs and the ignoramuses bribe the collector of fines to look the other way? Will the kneejerk reaction of the authorities result in half-hearted measures that come to naught?

We cannot afford to squander this chance. It may never come again.

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

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