The Desire to do Good versus the Desire to be in Power

Towards the last few days of 2014 I found myself sitting through what seems to be a standard (excruciating) discussion on any progressive waste management project. I was left pondering about a number of aspects. It will be 20 years now that I have been pursuing the issue of better waste management for Mumbai and after pursuing 20 years of idealism and do good-ism still going through some same trials and tribulations and challenges made me ponder about what really is going on.

Here I am sitting with absolute crystal clarity about how to go about the project with a clear idea of how much effort the municipal corporation should be putting in along with creating a budget and hiring the right people et all and all that I get to hear is how one should be twisting and turning the project to avoid back lash from vested interests well entrenched in the corporation who would not like to see waste reduction at source happening or even feel threatened for a perceived change in power structure.

Beyond a point the conversation made me realise how in the same period that I have been stubbornly, consistently and almost foolishly desiring to do good for the cities environment (through SWM being one of them), to achieve multiple goals of

  1. Better utilisation of the tax payers money,
  2. of reduced use of fossil fuels in unnecessarily following a pick and dump method for (mis)managing waste,
  3. of reducing the foreign exchange burden from running trucks on imported fossil fuels,
  4. of reducing congestion on the roads from unnecessary trucks trips,
  5. of reducing air pollution from the movement of the trucks and also the burning of waste on dumping grounds,
  6. off reduced green house gases from all of the above

During this same time there is another set of people whose behaviour has also been very consistent and they have a far greater success rate to show than it seems I ever will. People who may or may not have a desire to do good – to achieve the above goals – but most certainly have a consistent desire to amass more and more power and wealth. This is the politicians of Mumbai. Some of them are MPs, some MLAs, others Councillors with ambitions of becoming MLAs and MPs.

Beyond a point almost everybody on my side of the table has had the same foolish behaviour and faces the same fate.

Any politician who has been associated with the municipal corporation and more specifically with the solid waste management issue since last two decades or more or even a lot less has seen a consistent rise in his career (I cant think of a her) over this time period. Activists and the do-gooders still have the same struggling conversations of how to generate resources for even small pilots. During the same time any counterpart politician has seen himself lord over ever increasing budgets of the municipal corporation, with no shortage of opportunities to create contracts and deals to fill their coffers and be able to generate funds for their rise up the power ladder, from being powerful as a Councillor to MLA to MP. Being able to create the necessary funds and infrastructure to have office and staff and communication and travel and more budgets. All resources that the do-gooders have not been able to ever generate any funds for; you can find them still having the same frustrating conversations about finding one full time person and a desk and a cupboard to store material and of families who are fed up with their pursuits.

Those desirous of being in power do not have to go about begging for funds and donations. They have large hearted people willing to fund them or they have become experts at extracting money at knife point. The same industry or business person, who will torture a do-gooder for making a donation will willingly pay up to a threatening politician. After being in power the politician has access to vast reserves of public money, which is also like the public willing to write a cheque to them.

On the worst affected end of the spectrum you have do-gooders who decided to get into the business end and ended up destroying their wealth completely. None of the politicians and IAS officers and other officials who fudged contracts, lied through their teeth (even in courts on oath), cheated and bribed and worse find themselves in the same fate. They are more powerful and wealthy and even if affected in some cases not destroyed.

Another very consistent behaviour pattern has been of the educated middle class of the city – possibly even more determined than the do-gooders or the politicians, to exhibit almost pathological levels of indifference and complete mastery to justify the same. I am very clear that the behaviour of the middle class creates the base on which politicians build their castles and the do-gooders scuffle around in their shanties.

There will never be a Swaccha Bharat in a country where the atma is so aswaccha. Desiring to do good for the country never pays, desiring to be in power (on the message of doing good) almost certainly does. Please do leave in the comments section all your wonderful excuses of being so pathologically indifferent and uninvolved.

Proposed new solid waste management rules – comments

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has come up with draft Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2013. The rules will overrule the existing rules which were framed in 2000 here. The Ministry has given a period of 60 days (from 29.08.2013) for public to respond with their views and suggestions.

It is important that everybody concerned with the issue of a clean city to engage with this process. The issue is not just one of a clean city but the philosophy towards waste management and the processes that will be followed. A number of activists have been carrying out efforts over the years without broad based public involvement. Please do consider organising programs around this issue where some of the members involved with the issue for long would love to come and speak.

The rules seem to have been put together in a hurry with incorporating the learnings from a number of developments since the 2000 Rules.

The proposed rules have a number of flaws, which I am highlighting below.

  1. The Ministry must share what necessitated the need for a new set of rules. Whether a note on the same is prepared and should share the same.
  2. The rules lack commentary on the serious constraints involved with developing new landfill sites. Competing demands for land are now stronger than they were when the rules were last formed in 2000. Land is needed to housing, infrastructure, farming and recreation and hence needs to be low in the priority of solid waste management.
  3. The rules do not adequately stress on the need for municipal corporations to go beyond the call of duty in sensitizing the citizens about not mixing wet and dry waste at source and hence minimising the need for centralised collection and transport of waste and landfill requirements.
    1. If in MSW 2000 this need was felt and appreciated adequately the developments since then have only increased the importance of reducing as much waste at source as possible. MSW 2013 Rules need to in fact start getting stringent about not accepting any mixed waste at source and levying fines for the same.
    2. The Rules should adequately acknowledge the services provided by rag pickers, the significant self-employment generated as a result and the need for municipal corporations to formally recognize the contribution by them.
    3. The Ministry should be abundantly aware that a lot of the requirements expected in the MSW 2000 Rules have been violated with gross impunity.
  4. The Rules should comment that due to the following important considerations there will be a strong focus on the minimisation of transport of waste over long distance. The transport of waste over long distance leads to
    1.  Use of fossil fuels which leads to release of GHG emissions which leads to long term environmental damage. India has a National Acton Plan on Climate Change and is a participant in global talks on mitigating climate change. The municipal waste management rules need to clearly be compliant with these efforts in letter and spirit.
    2. Air pollution from emissions which lead to immediate health impacts to the residents of the city.
    3. Loss of foreign exchange and hence economically harms the country. This is important in years like 2013, when we are facing a crisis.
    4. Expenditure on expensive machinery and
    5. Overall puts a strain on the municipal budget of the respective city.
  5. MSW 2013 Rules need to give very explicit guidance/instructions to the municipal corporations for engaging substantially in activities towards creating awareness about segregation of garbage and all other measures to treat biodegradable waste at source through various means. This creating of awareness will be through (and not limited to) advertisements in papers, television, schools, colleges, cinema halls, funding civil society organisations for road shows and all other means.
  6. MSW Rules 2013 should stress on very high standards of financial reporting about the complete costs involved in waste management.
  7. MSW Rules 2013 should stress on detailed disclosure on all the kinds of waste being generated in the city.
  8. MSW Rules 2013 do not adequately address the issue of electronic waste. Electronic waste generation is now huge in India and significant amount like batteries etc. are being disposed in the normal stream of waste disposal. The municipal corporations have to cover the whole gamut of awareness creation, strict segregation at source and final disposal in detail and with seriousness.
  9. MSW Rules 2013 need to be explicit and stringent on the need to strictly control the distribution of plastic carry bags in various kinds of shopping, a very large proportion of which end up in the garbage stream and are posing very serious environmental challenges. In Mumbai, all waterways like nullahs, creeks and the sea are choked with such plastic bags. During monsoons the sea throws all the plastic and other refuse out and makes a complete mess of the beaches.

The Waste to Energy part has been added new and one wonders whether that is the sole purpose of the new set of rules.