The fact that India is better equipped to successfully launch rockets in space than to deliver sanitation as a matter of routine is a spectacular failure of the Indian democracy.”
Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change by Ankur Bisen was released in mid-2019, and has slowly garnered attention for its explanation of what Bisen calls, “the silent acquiescence of Indian society” regarding waste, contamination and pollution of our cities, rivers, land and countryside. Working at Hasiru Dala, an organisation that works in South India for informal waste collectors and advocates for formal, segregated waste management, this was one of the first books I had seen in mainstream bookstores (as opposed to from my office library) that discussed waste and sanitation in any degree. A quick peek at the references section highlights a lack of books on Indian waste management, a lack of interviews with experts in the field – these exist, but are hard to find unless you are immersed in the subject. Bisen has written this exhaustive book based almost entirely on public statements by legislatures, courts, governing bodies, and articles in print and online media.
This is not a criticism. There is a network of NGOs, academics, activists and citizens concerned with waste management, the informal waste collection and recycling sector, advocacy with various levels of government to formalize waste management across the country, but that network has limited reach with mainstream society unless the country is in crisis mode. (Hasiru Dala received as much exposure for its food relief efforts in two months during the recent lockdown than for nearly a decade of work with informal waste collectors.)
Bisen constructs and reconstructs the history of waste management in India and contrasts it against Western and Japanese models of waste management, to our unsurprising detriment. One of this book’s biggest flaws is its characterization of Western waste management (In the USA and Europe) as near perfect in theory and practice, though there are acknowledged flaws in Western labour models, and large amounts of waste are simply outsourced to other nations in the East to deal with. His broader point still stands, however – these nations have decades of formal, regulated waste collection and disposal at every step of the waste chain, and do have steps and processes in place to monitor and hold violators of these rules to account.
Front and centre of the problem in India lies with the caste system. Bisen demonstrates a household where a single person tasked with household chores (the mother, the wife) hands over waste to a worker – the domestic maid, forced by circumstance of birth to work in sanitation and waste collection. The household then washes its hands of responsibility, and the maid, the sweeper, the street cleaner is forced to deal with the garbage in some manner. In Bisen’s ideal model of waste management, the social contract between the government and the people acknowledges that the citizens and residents have a duty and responsibilities regarding their waste that go beyond “get it out of my house ASAP, and denigrate the people who work with waste”. Bisen points out that people who work in waste collection in Western nations are usually well-paid, compensated for the unpleasantness of their work, but also those workers have a *choice* to join this work, and are forced into it for no pay, with degradation and denigration, with little vocational or social mobility.
(I wonder what anti-caste, DBA activist would say to Bisen’s assertion that Dalit activism has failed in not taking over waste management and presenting the Dalit community as waste experts, with demands and recommendations to Union, state and local governments regarding waste management and regulation. I found it an extraordinarily strange and contradictory assertion.)
The failure of the waste generator – that’s you, and that’s me – to break free of the caste system, to take responsibility for our waste and segregate it responsibly – is mirrored in a failure of state actors at every level to form clear, coherent rules and regulations to create and operate a waste management infrastructure in urban and rural areas. Bisen highlights Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign as an extraordinary first for the country, but it remains at present a *campaign* rather than a formal system with stringent steps for the state and urban local bodies to implement. Generations of Indian legislatures have looked away from the issue of waste. We have rules for every step of the processing of sugar – except for what to do with the remnants (and the processing of sugar is the one of the most waste-intensive in the food sector!). This passing of the buck – “Something must be done, let the state decide,” results in a situation where action is taken only in reaction, in response to a crisis. Nothing is done to prevent the crisis. The rubbish spot grows until the locals complain, the local authorities clean up the waste, and the rubbish spot grows again. The sewer is clogged until the locals call in a manual scavenger, a scavenger dies, there is a news media hullabaloo, and the sewer clogs again.
We have seen this pattern repeat multiple times recently, as the lockdown created immediate potential starvation across the nation, which was stopped mostly by NGO and citizen intervention, as our medical institutions scrambled to work against the pandemic, as we all scramble now to assist West Bengal and Odisha.
Urban India is built on informal labour, with little to no room created for that informal sector to live with dignity. Urban planning perforce has to work backwards, but Bisen highlights how urban planning in India tends to plan for static, homogenous societies, rather than heterogenous, dynamic societies, often with cyclical migration. Bisen rails against the existence of the informal sector and informal industries and would like to see them eradicated by absorption into formal systems with labour laws, standardization, regulation, monitoring. At first, it looked like he was railing against the existence of informal people – invisible and unnoticed by the state, but Bisen recognizes the worth of informal labour, and informal industry – they fill a necessary gap in urban and rural infrastructure. What Bisen wants is for that gap to not exist: regulate the informal industries, upgrade skills, working conditions and living environments for the workers and their families, and mandate every step of waste management into a living, dynamic system.
He acknowledges this is unlikely.
Bisen has to distil a great deal of information into a compact and digestible book. There are no graphs, no tables, and fleeting hints to a network of informal waste management. Living and working in Bangalore, I can see vast gaps of information about waste management in Wasted, and I can guess at similar gaps for other cities mentioned. (But the solution would be a book so unwieldy we would all only pretend to read it. It would be the War and Peace of waste literature.) He makes sweeping statements, makes drastic connections, and jumps in logic that I am not always sure I follow. But these are not the foundation of the book. As a manifesto of shared responsibility, and a demand on each of us to take specific steps to address our responsibility to our own garbage, Wasted is an excellent initiation to the interested reader.