The Herculean task of reining in Bengaluru’s garbage mafia

Why does Bengaluru’s waste management break down often? How does the ‘mafia’ operate? What is needed to help the city come out from the clutches of the garbage mafia?

The garbage mafia did it again – they held Bengaluru to ransom, by stopping waste collection last week. The government of Karnataka had to invoke Essential Services Management Act (ESMA) for them to stop protesting and get to work. But waste collection is yet to resume in many parts of the city, with piles of mixed waste lying on roadside.

What causes this situation? Even after having court-monitored processes to set the system in place, why are we still suffering? Where does the rot lie?

The answer: it lies in the system itself. The current waste management system is designed to facilitate corruption. And it needs to change.

Mafia is deeply connected to politics

A volunteer working for better solid waste management had shared a video with us a while ago. The contractor who spoke to her on the video said half of the money that he gets goes to the local corporator as illegal commission, for letting him operate waste collection business in the area.

The contractor has no incentive to do a good job of waste collection—all the involved political leaders want is their share, and the more it is, happier they will be. So the contractors figure out shortcuts to save money and maximise profits. This trend leads them to not do their job well, and not let people go for alternatives either.

These are the forces that don’t want the major reforms that are proposed in waste management scenario in Bengaluru. They are:

1) Biometric systems for Pourakarmikas
2) Location-sharing GPS devices for garbage autos and compactors
3) Separate collection of wet and dry waste
4) Mechanical sweepers to clean major roads

Any transparency in the operation will force the contractors to do justice to their job – they cannot bill for imaginary vehicles, dump garbage wherever they want to and they can’t pocket the money in the name of the Pourakarmikas not present on duty. Something like a mechanical sweeper will totally eliminate manpower required dramatically and save money for Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), but the mafia will lose out.

The many tricks the mafia resorts to

Now look at this story. A dry waste collection centre in one of the wards in Bengaluru is being run efficiently by an NGO. The profitable business catches the eye of the local politician. The politician expresses interest in running the show, but the NGO carries on with its business. The politician uses his contacts and power to malign the people behind the dry waste collection centre. He also attacks a Pourakarmika, who without realising who she is speaking to, asks the politician’s wife to segregate waste, when she is given mixed waste during collection. When the Pourakarmika goes to police station, the police refuse to accept the complaint!

Recently there was an instance of BBMP garbage contractors taking signatures from Pourakarmikas employed on contract in Koramangala and elsewhere by force. The papers on which they signed said they did not want salaries in bank by direct payment, and want the contract system of waste management to continue.

Then there is the example of contractors throwing garbage into the compound of a resident of Indiranagar, for questioning them for non-segregation. This in fact terrified residents in other areas, who interacted with garbage contractors regularly, sending them a message that contractors were beyond any questioning.

There are also instances of contractors opening bank accounts for the Pourakarmikas when forced to do it, but keeping the ATM cards and paying the Pourakarmikas in cash, often half the amount that is actually due.

These are just examples of how the contractor-political lobby forms unholy nexus, cuts corners and doesn’t hesitate to do whatever it takes to achieve the objective of making more money. As a result, garbage in the city goes and ends up in landfills, without really getting processed. Even when the city has an installed capacity of  2,700 tonnes per day to process wet waste, only 316 tonnes of wet waste per day gets processed.

The solid waste management activists in the city have been batting for improved processes and a separate Solid Waste Management Board to run waste collection and management, just like BWSSB and BESCOM. This has seriously threatened the contractor-politician nexus.

BBMP also has started implementing separate collection of wet and dry waste. The payment for some such cases was delayed in some cases, like in Bellandur.

People say enough is enough

Every time a resident mixes waste, the mafia rejoices. Every time people turn a blind eye to the garbage piles on the street corners, it amounts to supporting the mafia. The mafia wants people to move their focus away from garbage, so that they can carry on with the illegalities as usual.

But, Bengaluru is a hotbed of activism, where solid waste management has a special place. Over the years, activists have identified what exactly is wrong with waste management, and what needs to be fixed.

The garbage mafia that opposes progressive steps by the BBMP and Government of Karnataka started their protest a few days ago. On September 24, 2017, around a 100 concerned citizens came together on the steps of the Town Hall. They welcomed the government’s steps to introduce biometrics for the Pourakarmikas, the direct pay mechanism to eliminate ghost workers, GPS in waste collection vehicles to help monitor daily waste collection, and introduction of mechanical sweeping.

The frequent strikes by the garbage mafia especially during the monsoon, and the festival time, their threatening of Pourakarmikas, withholding their payments and preventing them from entering the biometrics, carrying out personal defamation campaigns against SWM Incharge Officers and not participating in the garbage tenders etc were discussed.

People’s demands for better waste management

Many resident welfare associations, SWM practitioners, civil society organisations, SWM Master Trainers and Ward SWM Champions put together a list of public demands.

  • A clean city is a fundamental right
  • Dust-free and well-swept roads
  • Daily, efficient collection of segregated waste from each and every household and shop
  • A transparent system with biometrics and GPS with full public disclosure of all contracts and payments
  • The Pourakarmikas to directly receive their monthly minimum wages, in a timely manner
  • The recognition of Waste pickers to handle all dry waste
  • The waste to go to proper processing destinations and not to quarries or landfills
  • The protection of performing officers , from being transferred and non interference in their duties
  • Non-performing, corrupt contractors to be blacklisted and not allowed to be given work orders, contracts or participate in tenders
  • Proper enforcement and penalties to be enforced on the non compliant without any interference and influence
  • The full support of the City Council and its body of elected representatives for all of the above.

The waste management scenario in the city has become a constant battle between the procedures that help the city streamline the issue, and the vested interests that don’t let it happen. Currently BBMP and the state government seem firm on implementing the processes required to streamline the system. It shows the political willpower at the top.

But, will the base of the power structure listen to the top? Will the top leadership be able to win over the hurdles and set up a right and just system of waste management that helps the city? Only time will tell. Till then, Bengaluru will be sitting on a ticking garbage timebomb.

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