“People just don’t care! There is no sense of civic responsibility. People just want the waste out of their houses”. This I heard from almost every informant I talked to. In this article, I want to share some of my findings during the past two and a half month I have been here in Bengaluru.
I came to India for the first time in 2008 and found the country enchanting but also overwhelming. I wanted to come back again and so I did – three times more since then. This time I am here to do a research for my master thesis in Anthropology. What caught my attention the first time I was here has become my topic of research – waste.
“Garbage is generally overlooked because we create so much of it so casually and so constantly that it’s a little bit like paying attention to, I don’t know, to your spit, or something else you just don’t think about. You—we—get to take it for granted that, yeah, we’re going to create it, and, yeah, somebody is going to take care of it, take it away” Robin Nagel, American Anthropologist.
Robin Nagle has been working as a sanitation worker in New York and taught Anthropology of Trash at the University of New York. She notes that we, consumers, are ignorant about waste – we just do not think about it. It is a privilege of modern life not to give our waste much thought. We put it outside and when we look again, it is gone. It is a flow of waste which is rarely stopped and when there is change it becomes unsettling, i.e. when the ‘Gargbage Crisis’ hit Bangalore in August 2012. In the view of Nagle, waste points to our most profound fears. Things enter our lives and homes as goods and leave them as ‘bads’ – waste – and this is a reminder that everything is temporary (even us!) and can become waste no matter how laden with meaning it is. Robin Nagle and her work have been an inspiration for my fieldwork here.
I have now done my research here since late August and my focus has been on the perceptions of waste and civic action. A friend directed my attention to the ‘Garbage Crisis’ last year and I did some initial online research on the topic and came across articles about citizens ‘taking the matter into their own hands’. I started to wonder what made (what I assumed was) middle class Indians engage in waste – get their hands dirty and do clean up drives, Recycling Habbas, spot fixes, segregation and composting. Was it environmental concern, dissatisfaction with the Municipality not providing sufficient services, or a community project?
As a researcher, one does not venture into the field without an outline of the project. This was no different for me. Some of my initial ideas include that according to scholars India has a long tradition of civil society engagement and social movements in relation to political action and dissatisfaction with the State. But, as Sunil Khilnaniargues in his book The Idea of India, the democratisation of India after Independence in 1947 has changed the sense of community in the society and the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990’s have further made the citizens subject to liberal market capitalism and commercial society.
Bangalore is a city in rapid growth and development. It has a growing middle class and with economic growth comes also enhanced ability to consume. But Bangalore also sees the back side of consumption – waste. The ‘Garbage Crisis’ has fuelled initiatives not only dealing with waste but also with other urban issues as infrastructure, wildlife etc. Hence, it made me wonder if the civic action and the ‘Garbage Crisis’ in Bangalore could somehow been seen in the light of this?
What makes people turn their back to waste?
So I ventured out into Bangalore and talked to service providers, NGOs, grass roots, individuals, and volunteers. I have seen Dry waste collection centres, observed black spots, followed door to door collection of waste, attended court hearings and spoken to a large amount of people in the field of waste management and a key question is still: What is it that motivates people to participate in clean up drives, in volunteering in resident groups, in following door to door collection of waste in their area and promote awareness about waste? This is interesting in the light of waste being something that is socially seen as polluting work; why do middle and upper class Indians engage in socially polluting and stigmatising work that historically is reserved for the lowest caste?
However, despite having a project description one can only imagine what will happen in the field, as the society has proved not to be a static and homogenous entity. So every field has its own cultural and social specificities and for the anthropologist it implies being open to the field, aware of multiple aspects at the same time, and not letting one aspect overshadow the other. It has come to my attention that this waste issue touches upon various aspects – social, economic, political and cultural. Since Bangalore is not a uniform space but has many different neighborhoods, languages, religions, socio-economic classes the study of waste in here has several aspects to it. I cannot outline all of them here but what came to my attention are listed here. (I emphasise, that these are my initial findings, and I have not done elaborate analyses on all the data):
1) Lack of community/civic sense. This is one of the findings that correlate with my initial thoughts. Informants have told me that one of the reasons they believe this is so, is the many immigrants in Bangalore. People don’t take ownership over the city, their neighborhood or street simply because they are here for a short period of time to work. As I have moved around in different parts of the city, it is my impression that there are significant differences between neighborhoods. Even though Malleswaram seems to be a neighborhood with many indigenous Bangaloreans, there is no total compliance to the rules of segregation at source, nor is there in HSR layout, where a lot of immigrants live. So though we can attribute some of the lack of active involvement to lack of civic sense and ownership over the city, it leads us on to the next point.
2) Consumerism and personal responsibility. I set out with the presumption that waste is a matter that we don’t give much attention to unless we are directly confronted with it, for example when it is not being picked up. I acknowledge that some of the groups I have interacted with have been around before the crisis started but in general the overall attention and new initiatives did not start until around August 2012. One thing that I have wondered was why people did not comply with the rules of October 2012 when segregation at source was made mandatory? One explanation, and here one should be careful not to come with cause-relation explanations, could be that dealing with waste is simply an unpleasant thing! It reminds us that nothing is permanent and it can be quite unpleasant to be confronted with your own consumption. As one informant stated, “It suddenly made me aware of how much I consume and how bad it is for the environment with all that plastic wrapping.” As another informant stated, there needs to be some sort of ‘abundance’ to deal with things like this. He believed that it was the reason why so many people ignored it – they simply did not have the money, time or energy to deal with it. This supports my initial thoughts about this civic action being a class phenomenon. Defining middle class can be a tricky thing so I have utilised the definition given by themselves and almost all my informants with a few exceptions have belonged to what they themselves believed was middle or upper middle class.
3) Perceptions of waste. Waste evokes disgust in most of us. It is not nice to have it lying around on street corners and it reminds us of our own impermanence. I think that in order to overcome this disgust and also how we deal with consumption, we need to articulate waste in other terms, i.e. as resources, recyclables etc. My point is not to make a moral judgment, just to point out that it is happening – and not only in Bangalore. Recycling is the new black in the US and Europe, although it might be a niche phenomenon, it is gaining increasing momentum in society. All of the groups I have met are articulating waste as resources whether they were dealing with the informal sector, policy making or environmental issues. Thus, it shows that waste is not a permanent thing but perceptions of it change according to the relation it is part of. A bottle of water when it is empty is waste for the consumer, but for the waste picker it is a source of income. But as one informant pointed, this bottle is not a resource in itself – it is not a resource until someone makes it into one – collects it and sends it to recycling.
4) The failed State. I don’t think it is questionable whether the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahat Palike (BBPM) has failed in providing its citizens with the service of waste management. What is interesting in this context is that citizens have taken up the task of providing the infrastructure in different pockets of the city. So what I see is a beginning sense of community coming back to Bangalore where waste becomes the medium for expressing dissatisfaction with the State on corruption or lack of accountability.
So, what motivates citizens to take up waste management? For some it is the feeling that the State has failed and that they need to care about the environment around them because the crisis brought to their attention the side effects of consumption and waste. Further, waste is more motivating to work with when it is viewed in more positive terms, as a resource.
For others it might be that they are housewives on a daily basis and want to fill their day with something that makes more sense than cleaning and cooking. As one informant stated, it was not enough for her to just take care of her family. She felt that she also had to do something for society, that she had a responsibility. For others it might have been all the above aspects in a combination that has motivated them – and still does. For some it is the social aspects that motivate them. They want to do something for the subaltern, in this respect the informal sector and the waste workers. For others they get precisely that feeling of community, of being in a group that does something that ‘matters’ – feeling that they are not just headless consumers but take up civic responsibility and make a difference.
In conclusion, it is my belief that waste plays a significant role. It is embroiled in and transformed through social relationships, cultural meaning and political discourses into many different forms and in an overall manner waste has become a medium for expressing various concerns – be they about civic sense, environmentalism, community matters, the failing State or consumerism.
For references, click here.
Dreaming of the day when we don’t have to segregate waste!
Look who BBMP signed up to process waste in Bengaluru
A ‘not-so-waste’ ride in garbage auto on a Saturday morning
Segregation at source gets new followers in Sadashivanagar