A Public Effort

  • 30/01/2000

Iqbal Malik, director of Vatavaran, started work on solid waste management way back in 1992. With the help of a few residents in Asiad Village Complex in New Delhi, she launched the Cleaning Brigade (cb) scheme. It was to be a practical, eco-friendly, scientific, zero investment yet income-generating scheme to manage the garbage at the community level.

"First, we had to go from door to door to make people aware of the garbage management problem," says Malik. She used interesting but effective ways to ensure people's participation. The residents were called for a meeting. This was followed by a procession with a couple of people beating drums. The latter would go in front of houses of people who did not participate and keep beating louder till they were forced to join in.

Today, the scheme is operating in 27 different parts of the city as well as noida in Uttar Pradesh. Plans are afoot to launch it in Faridabad, Haryana, also. Among the institutions where cb has made a mark is Jawaharlal Nehru University (jnu). In jnu, where the scheme was launched in 1993-94, cb manages garbage produced by 1,950 households, eight hostels, some 50 educational and administrative departments, shopping complexes, dhabas and canteens. "jnu is now a zero garbage campus," says a proud Malik.

The scheme operates along very simple lines. As and when residents of a colony become sensitive to the garbage menace, they approach Vatavaran. The organisation's team of field workers study the quantum and type of garbage produced by the colony, decide the financial contribution each house would have to make every month (Rs 40-45), select a patch of wasteland within the colony for composting, get in touch with the local ragpickers and unemployed youths and train them to collect, transport and segregate garbage in an organised manner. The residents' association, meanwhile, send circulars to all the residents to join the scheme. They buy uniforms, gloves and caps for the workers, referred to as "my boys" by Malik, and also cycle rickshaws for transporting the garbage.

Each system has a three-tier operation system, comprising the garbage collectors at the lowest level, deputy supervisor at the next level and the supervisor at the top. They work closely with the residents and have clearly demarcated duties.

A typical day for the boys starts at around 7-7.30 am, when they are allocated their daily duty and area of operation. They go from door to door collecting the waste. An interesting aspect of cb's operation is that garbage never touches the ground.

All the waste collected is taken to a marked area for composting or recycling. "Anaerobic composting is preferred by us because this type of composting does not require any initial investment, there are no open ugly dumps of garbage at any time; there is no stench and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian wastes can be composted together," says Malik. "Besides, it does not require water and Delhi in is any case a water-short city. This also lowers the chances of leachate formation and groundwater pollution," she adds. Within four months, the process is complete and the compost sold to residents. Vermicomposting is also being practised in some institutions such as JNU.

Apart from raising the income level of garbage collectors, which has increased from Rs 800 in 1992 to Rs 3,500 in 1999, the scheme has tried to lessen the gap that otherwise exists between garbage collectors and the generators. Residents are requested to consider the "boys" as their extended family and treat them with respect, says Malik. Apart from teaching the boys the art and science behind composting, they are also made part of various workshops and health melas that are organised to teach them how to raise saplings, make baskets, diaries and envelopes from waste, and also take care of their health.

Vatavaran's work has spread to other cities as well. "There are letters from all over the country seeking advice on swm," says Malik. Similar programmes have already been launched in Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra.

"Let the municipality handle the marketplaces, the residential areas will be taken care of by the people themselves," says Malik. She is not wrong in saying so. The government should learn a few things from the Vatavaran experience (see diagram: Why Vatavaran?).

Exnora is an acronym for "excellent, novel and radical ideas". Founded in 1989 in Chennai by M B Nirmal, a deputy general manager of a bank, the company's motto is, "Don't ask what society can do for you. Ask yourself, what you can do for society."

Says T Ramkumar, lawyer and advisor to Exnora, "It is an organisation which promotes and propagates self help. Although there are several programmes, swm is the biggest."

Exnora International has formed community-based organisations, called Civic Exnoras, to collectively solve local civic and environmental problems, with the larger aim of improving the quality of life. Once formed, the Civic Exnoras are responsible for swm in their locality. Says Ramkumar, "Exnora International only acts as guides and advisors."

In 10 years, Civic Exnoras have grown by leaps and bounds. It started with only 20 members. Today, there are about 5,000 branches, 200,000 members and a 25,000-member youth force, all in a period of 10 years.

Nirmal started the work in a slum adjacent to his residence in Kamaraj Nagar. He mobilised the people in the area and made them undertake clean-up operations. Because people were made responsible, they were more responsive towards the cleanliness drive in their locality.

With the help of the local people, Exnora studies the scenario of SWM in a particular area, addresses the key issues and arrives at a pragmatic solution. They then employ garbage collectors, who are referred to as "street beautifiers"(SBs). The number of SBs depend on the size of the locality. The SBs are provided with uniforms and tricycle carts with two compartments - one is for biodegradable waste and the other for recyclable waste. They are also responsible for collecting money from the residents and maintaining bank accounts.

The SB collects waste from the households and deposits it at transfer centres or municipality collection centres. However, it was noticed that the pressure on civic bodies from collection points were increasing and they were ill-equipped to carry all the garbage collected in an organised manner. Garbage was just transferred to dumpsites and no disposal facilities were available.

This is when Exnora decided to adopt methods of waste recovery. They propagated composting at household and community levels and encouraged waste recycling. Informal segregation is now done by the sbs and recyclable items are sold. This earns them extra money (Rs 400 per month) apart from the regular salary of Rs 1,000 a month they get from the residents.

Now, Exnora has started a new scheme, called Zero Garbage Management, for maximum recovery of waste through segregation at source, door-to-door collection, decentralised composting of organic waste, recycling and re-segregation of inorganic waste and landfilling of non-recoverable waste. Although composting has taken off, it is yet to make an impact in some areas because of problems of space and money, especially among the low-income group.

Apart from the environment, the efforts of Exnora has brought about a tremendous social change. "After we started the Civic Exnora programmes, there has been no incident of animosity even in the areas that used to be most communally sensitive," says Ramkumar.

Although, the functioning of Civic Exnoras have been by and large smooth so far, a few societies have been facing problems. At some places, the municipal employees have voiced disapproval of their activities. The work in Akshaya Colony in the city is also raising a few queries. There is an incinerator with a stack height of 3.67 metres. According to S N Balasubramaniam, a resident of the colony, paper and packaging material are burnt in the incinerator. Although Balasubramaniam claims that it has not posed a problem so far, Bharati Chaturvedi, a New Delhi-based expert on swm, says this can lead to emission of gases that could be detrimental to human health.

Besides a few such hitches, Exnora has evolved from an anti-garbage campaign to a full-fledged people's movement for environmental protection and management. And its efforts have been rewarding. The work has spread to other towns and cities in Tamil Nadu and other states. In Kochi, Kerala, even government agencies have come forward and planned a people-oriented swm programme. According to Nirmal, even countries like Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Bangladesh are keen on adopting Exnora's strategies on SWM.

Pune can be termed as the composting capital of India. Individuals, institutions and people from all walks of life are involved in swm. And it is only in Pune that the importance of ragpickers has been realised.

It started in the early 1980s when visionaries like Uday Bhawalkar, an expert on earthworms, started experimenting with in-house swm. Among the very first to adopt Bhawalkar's swm process was Lata Shikhande. Today, she is recognised as a pioneer in terrace gardening in Pune.

Says Shikhande, "Even if you have no knowledge, nature guides you because you are trying to be one with nature." All she did was make a place for the garbage on the terrace which she filled with biodegradable kitchen waste. Then she sprinkled earthworm culture (cocoons of worms). The worms, which she calls the "pets of the 21st Century", started working wonders. She grows everything in her terrace garden now. "Throwing away stuff has never been a tradition of India. The problem is that they were not passed on to the present generation," says Shikhande.

Shikhande is not the only one practising vermiculture in Pune. Lalita Bhave, a bank employee, meets most of her vegetable requirements from her small terrace garden too. There are some who have completely dedicated themselves to terrace gardening. Apart from maintaining their own gardens, they also go to other housing societies and women's associations to help them with theirs.

All this is based on Bhawalkar's idea of swm. First, the waste is segregated. Thereafter, worm culture is introduced in seven different plants. Each plant gets the garbage of a particular day of the week. This keeps the plants from getting overloaded with garbage and also gives time for composting. At the end of the week, the garbage is turned into fine compost.

In Pune, it does not take long for the word to go around. "If I have a terrace garden, it becomes my neighbour's envy. This kind of competition boosts terrace gardening," says Bhawalkar. According to him, at present, more than 10,000 families are practising terrace gardening in the city.

Surprisingly, the municipality is also providing subsidies on worm culture that has to be bought at Rs 50 a kg. "We are propagating terrace gardening and vermiculture to reduce waste and the subsidy is a part of it," says Dhaigude.

There are also some people, who have been mobilising others in an organised manner to take up vermiculture. One such organisation is the National Society for Clean Cities. But it was not a particularly good experience for Gita Vir, president of the organisation, and her friends. "The so-called civilised lot are the worst when it comes to waste management," says Vir. They noticed that the municipality also did not have a particularly effective swm policy.

As a first step, they organised the ragpickers and kudawallahs for collection of garbage and vermicomposting. Then they appealed to the people to segregate their garbage. As things started progressing and households resorted to segregation of waste, they procured some land for vermicomposting inside La Shanz, the society where Vir lives. Although the municipality has since been involving them in swm-related discussions, they have not been particularly proactive, says Vir.

In Pune, even hospitals are showing exemplary work in the field of swm. In the Om Nursing Home of Pune, nothing goes out of the compound. The gynaecologist couple, Vimla and H V Ganla, who own the hospital, decided to compost all the medical waste in their own compound rather than make it a burden for somebody else. They have made two concrete enclosures with an opening at the top to put the waste and a small door at the bottom to take out the composted manure. The results have been overwhelming. "My plants actually started showing a healthier growth," says H V Ganla. However, he is not yet ready to recommend this to everybody. "People have certain reservations regarding medical waste and I am not recommending it unless I come out with scientific proof that there is no need to be afraid," he says.

Despite all the efforts, community-based swm in Pune is yet to catch up with low-income families or those in slum areas. The adult education department of sndt University in Pune has now started a campaign to educate people slum dwellers, mostly ragpickers. Started in the early 1990s, through Kach Kachra Kashtkari Panchayat, ragpickers are being taught the importance of hygiene. Says Laxmi Narain, coordinator of the programme, "After they have been organised, there has also been a change in their lifestyle." But they still have a long way to go.

R T Doshi's terrace in his Mumbai house is an urban jungle, but not made of concrete. Coconut trees, sugarcane, guavas and a whole range of other vegetables and fruit grow on the terrace. Founder of the Institute of Natural Organic Agriculture (inora) in Pune, Doshi specialises in terrace cultivation, which he calls "city farming".

In the 1970s, the Central government initiated a swm programme in different cities across the country. This came with a subsidy equivalent to the capital cost of the project. The municipalities were also involved, but the project did not take off. "The projects somehow were not sustainable or earning profits," says Doshi, who was involved in the project. "It was then that I thought an alternative has to be found," says Doshi. After interacting with Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan, whom Doshi calls the father of city farming, he started growing plants on his terrace.

His method is simple: Get a couple of 300 litre drums and divide them into three sections. Bore four holes of 10 cm each in each section. Fill up to 2 cm of each section with sugarcane bagasse. Then add biodegradable kitchen waste. When the garbage level reaches the level of the holes, vegetables can be planted. Apart from the drums, waste cement bags and baskets can also be used. One of the most important things about his method is that it does not require much water. Moreover, Doshi's farming does not require more than half an hour of care a day.

Using this method, Doshi has been able to cultivate vegetables and fruit for more than 300 days a year on his 110 sq metre terrace garden. His efforts have earned him laurels even from the United Nations Development Programme. He has influenced many people across the city to take up city farming to manage their own garbage and be self-sufficient as well.

However, despite Doshi's claim that his method is completely scientific, there are some hitches. His swm process is suitable only for organic kitchen waste. It needs accurate measurements, which many people may not be able to carry out. And, excess rains might pose a problem. Nevertheless, he has been able to prove that the responsibilities of the municipalities can be minimised.

Says A K Jain, additional commissioner, Municipal Corporation of Mumbai (mcm), "We recommend both city farming and vermiculture. The idea is not to give any garbage to the municipality."

The ngos have also been instrumental in making mcm wake up to the swm problem in the city. One such organisation is the Save Bombay Committee (sbc). Headed by Kisan Mehta, one of the organisation's achievements is its ability to influence mcm to accept them as consultants on swm. "Unless you have a position with the government, it is not very easy to get things done," says Priya Salve of SBC.

Together with the municipality, sbc has formed what is known as Advanced Locality Management (alm) groups. Says Salve, "It is an effort to bring the municipality and the people together." sbc talks to people in different localities and teaches them the different aspects of swm. After this, associations are formed.

The alms segregate the garbage. The biodegradable garbage is composted in a place in their own locality, while recyclable waste is sold off or given to ragpickers. A nodal officer, an employee of the rank of a junior engineer in the municipality, is appointed in each ward. At present, there are 300 alms out of 425 housing societies. "People are practising composting at the individual as well as community levels," says Salve. According to Jain, alms are also moving towards other aspects of civic administration. Further, says Jain, alms have been interacting with ragpickers to organise them and train them in SWM. The message is spreading and the people are ready to participate in swm, but Mumbai is still a dirty city. Says Salve, "It is now up to the municipality to provide infrastructure and guidance to the people and also to lend a ear to any solution or advice coming from them."

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