Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Challenges involved for neighbourhood cleaning activity in Puttaparthi when done individually

In response to my mails related to Puttaparthi Clean India activity on Chitravathi river bed (see http://ravisiyer.blogspot.com/2014/11/before-after-pics-puttaparthi-clean.html for details on it), a correspondent wrote:

Did it need the prime minster of the country to tell us we need to keep our neighbourhoods clean? And if it did, why did no other prime minister spread this message?

I responded (edited):

Interesting thoughts. My view is that apathy in our civic infrastructure setup is very deeply set in. The current PM is playing the role of an inspirational civic reformer when it comes to Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. That is good as he has the platforms to share his message with the people and the power to release some funds for related work.

The correspondent responded: I was thinking of ourselves. What apathy and laziness we have sunk to that it needs the prime minister to tell us to clean our neighbourhoods!

I responded (edited):

I have a lot of input on what you raised based on my personal experience in Puttaparthi.

Over the past few years I have got engaged more with the local surroundings and people around my apartment building. One of the big issues we faced was an unauthorized garbage dumping place nearby which besides being an eyesore and smelling bad, would draw pigs sent, it seems, by a marginalized kind-of pig breeder from a nearby village. The unauthorized garbage dumping place was a piece of land that, I am told, is under legal dispute.

I, and many others I believe, tried to do something about it by speaking to the vice-chairman of Puttaparthi Urban Development Authority (PUDA), the municipal tax collector and local leaders (most of the local leaders are builders). At the municipal cleaning staff level it slowly dawned on me that they want to avoid expanding their route to come to relatively new buildings like ours, and so prefer having that unauthorized dumping ground as it becomes a single collection point instead of them moving to many buildings and collecting the garbage from (smaller) building managed garbage (big plastic closed bucket type) bins. Then there are many cart vendors (& shops) of fruit juice, vegetables and fruits, who generate garbage everyday, in the close by (important for spiritual-tourist business) Chitravathi Road street. Many of these vendors seemed to find this unauthorized garbage point convenient! To make things significantly worse, over time some people started treating that area as a urinal too!

I tried to organize some local support for stopping people dumping garbage there. I spoke to shop keepers near that area. They told me that they had tried and failed in the past. They were appreciative of my initiative but were not so willing to meet local leaders along with me to try to solve the problem (barring one person who showed some willingness but dropped out at the last moment for one meeting that I tried to have with a local leader).

Another issue was that if people were stopped from dumping garbage here, they would dump garbage elsewhere, even at municipal garbage bin points which would overflow leading to problems that were being faced here getting shifted perhaps to that place!

It became clear to me that there were many people, typically poor & marginalized type of people, who were finding this unauthorized dumping place (and unauthorized urinal too, for some people), very convenient. As an individual if I try to force them to change their ways I would become their enemy, who they may initially simply ignore/avoid but could later on even attack. Yes, attack is the word, as for these very poor & marginalized kind-of people, their lives are so desperate that when they get pushed they sometimes can see attack as the only way out.

After having understood this aspect of the matter I realized that without local leaders support if I try to do something to prevent people from dumping garbage there, I will be just a nobody who will be brushed aside or worse. So I approached one of the somewhat more approachable builders who I had some acquaintance with. He asked me to meet another builder. It emerged that this other builder is one of the part-owners of the land which is under dispute and had become the unauthorized dumping ground.

This builder was not impolite and heard me out. But then he swept my proposals for the clean up aside saying that it will get cleaned up in a week or two, and to leave it to him (he is also a politician and had contacts with the municipal authorities). I was not sure that it would happen but I had to politely accept his words. Later, even after a month nothing happened. I chose not to follow up as past experience with local leaders/builders had taught me that he may not like me going frequently to him on this matter, and could react negatively.

A few months later though the empty land site was cleaned up using an Earth mover machine and a small wall was built around it. The garbage site shifted to an area just outsde the cleaned up land site, but was smaller. This is prior to the Swachh Bharat campaign in Puttaparthi town which happened a few weeks ago (different from the very recent Chitravathi riverbed Swachh Bharat campaign).

In conclusion, I think the reality of Puttaparthi town is that there are many very poor and marginalized kind-of people eking out a living. These people cannot be bothered too much about hygiene training etc. and public duty. And I really can't blame them. Grinding poverty is such a desperate thing. The brutal truth is that such persons mainly respond to orders from authority like local leaders and police. Therefore Puttaparthi (outside-ashram) cleanup activity is possible only if local leaders are willing to either lead the activity or lend support to it. Individuals like me, even if we form a small group, will find it a very uphill task without active local leader(s) support.

The PM's Swachh Bharat call has somehow influenced/motivated state and local leaders to get involved in this activity, which is a great blessing for middle-class outside-ashram Puttaparthi residents like me.

The correspondent wrote back (slightly edited):
Thanks, you took the initiative and also found out the constraints and limitations. Most politicians are not interested in anything that they will not get credit or money for. So it will need a citizens movement to persuade any of them to act (since not acting would alienate a lot of people). Even if a politician is partly willing, the inertia in the municipal system is very high and workers will openly ask 'What's in it for me?'. 
It will take time. For decades, we watched it sliding out of control and looked away. Now we are paying the price.
By the way, one reason for the problem is the unwillingness of municipal corporations across the country to make and implement schemes for handling solid waste. Basically, there is no money in solid waste management and a lot of work, neither of which are vote-getters in municipal bodies.
We probably produce less waste and less plastic per capita than other countries like us (and far less than developed countries). It should be quite feasible to manage this waste in environmentally safe ways. Yet, households do not like to even separate organic and inorganic waste. In New York state, and I am sure elsewhere in the US, not only is this separation essential, even plastic waste has to be segregated and washed clean before it is collected. 
The phrase I have heard often is 'Let the municipality deal with this. It is their problem.' What that usually means is that the person feels they are too high up the caste or social hierarchy to dirty their hands by dealing with their own waste.

I responded (slightly edited):

I think you are quite close to the truth here (last paragraph above).

BTW in a recent speech to the Indian origin community in Australia, PM Modi talked about learning 'dignity of labour' from Australia. In this context he mentioned how we Indians refer to cleaning staff as "Kachrawala" (garbage man) when the right term is "Safaiwala" (cleaning man)! I very much liked him talking about such matters.

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