Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Urban Waste: A Glimse At The Nitty-Gritty

Bharati Chaturvedi,Director,Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, Delhi says -

" Something’s changing in urban India. Cities are now being redesigned to fend for themselves, become ‘viable’ entities on the balance sheet. Every bit of infrastructure and service is being packaged as an investment opportunity. It’s called urban entrepreneurism. Goodbye government, hello markets.

In this heady new world, waste occupies an important position, not merely because of its physical attributes but because of services required to manage it. There is a shifting understanding of waste as the new wealth. The idea of wealth from waste has been popular since the late 1980s. Now, bolstered by public interest litigation, there is a paradigm shift towards capital-intensive, large-scale privatization of solid waste management services.

Municipalities sub-contract agencies to help set up privatization via a global bid. Typically, this is for collection and transportation of waste, sometimes collection from the doorstep. A few contractors get advertising rights to dhalaos — neighbourhood disposal points. And end-point technologies depend on private players. A recent study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in 25 Indian cities found that only two cities hadn’t privatized some part of the formal waste system. The conclusion? “Huge scope for privatization in solid waste management.”

But waste has always been managed and recycled by indigenous private players in India. Almost 1% of urban populations are estimated to be involved in recycling. Wastepickers, itinerant buyers, junk dealers—these are our indigenous waste handlers. For them, waste is lucrative because it generates the next meal. Theirs is an investment of time, labour and acquired skills. The cost is their health.

They have few opportunities to leap into the formal sector and no social security. With low capital investments and no subsidies, the informal sector recycles between 9- 59 per cent of the total waste generated in urban India, depending on the city or town you are looking at.

These private players are excluded from the grand plans for waste management; perhaps because they are embedded in everyday life, perhaps because the fruit of their low capital investment is poorly appreciated. Casting such smaller players aside, policymakers imagine privatization as a capital-intensive investment for well-networked entities. Most contracts in India seek investment capacity, fleet ownership and similar large assets. Few seek proven efforts in the field. To become a new-age waste contractor, you don’t need to know about waste. But being rich is essential.

Privatization’s only occasional concession is a patronizing one: through hiring ‘bin guides’. These involve a single person, sometimes a wastepicker, to the exclusion of all others. They keep the disposal points clean. This creates a new ‘professional’ individual outside indigenous systems, rupturing collective earning capacity for the poor. Women, for example, lose the flexibility to look after homes or pick or sort waste at convenient times, unable to contribute to family income.

Private contractors, owners of the recyclable waste, sell it all to the biggest dealers, if not factories. A long chain that includes hundreds of small junk dealers breaks. It is the fencing of urban common property resources.

The informal sector can’t compete in this unequal playing field. Being denied resources to independently trade materials is a deep demotion. Wastepickers and small scrap dealers collaborate and compete through unwritten codes of conduct, kinship and community or peer pressure, resulting in one of the highest rates of recycling in the world.

A popular understanding of privatization is that it results in municipal savings. The World Bank, in its 2006 report, Improving Management of Municipal Solid Waste in India : Overview and Challenges, agrees that there is a 20-40 per cent reduction. However, it says, “One of the reasons for the relatively lower costs incurred by the contractor is quoted as differential wages, particularly when private contractors tend to pay lower than minimum wages to their sanitary workers.” Savings arise from depriving workers, a fact borne out empirically even in Delhi.

In a country with rapid urbanization and 300 million people earning under a dollar a day, dislocating and disenfranchising the poor their jobs is against public interest. A paper in the 2007 summer edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review emphasizes that stable jobs are the best way out of poverty. Author Aneel Karnani says, “If societies are serious about helping the poorest of the poor, they should stop investing in microcredit and start supporting large labour-intensive industries.” The new privatization of waste works in the opposite direction.

But the poor aren’t the only losers. The rest of the city loses too, we’ve recently seen. Last year, the German bilateral agency GTZ and the Collaborative Working Group on Solid Waste Management (cwg) asked a question: what is the economics of informal sector recycling? Their results, culled from six developing world cities across the continents, are lessons for us.

They found that the informal sector significantly subsidized the cost of waste handling and recycling. In the formal sector, there was a cost to recycling. In the informal sector, there was a benefit. The data from Cairo showed that the informal sector’s handling cost per tonne of waste was $4.30, and the formal sector, $14.40. In Lima, the tonnes per person handling waste, including recycling, in the informal and formal sector was an astounding 1:30 ratio. The study concluded it was a “bad idea” for formal sector players to colonize recycling.

If the informal sector went away, the costs of recycling would rise dramatically. In the Philippines, it costs the informal sector 17 euros per tonne for waste recycling. For the same work, the formal sector must spend 81 euros. This matters to both the city and citizens, because they will finally finance these rising costs.

Delhi is a good example of poor waste policy and privatization. The terms of the contract, made by the Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation for the Municipal Council of Delhi, only perfunctorily mentions wastepickers, ignores several other informal recyclers, reduces segregation standards and worsens work conditions. The recyclables also belong to the private operators. In Delhi, the private operators must segregate only 20 per cent in the final and eighth year of operations—a lowering of standards from the over 90 per cent by wastepickers. Consequently, many low-value materials are incentivized to be landfilled, morphing from resources to pollutants.

Clashes become inevitable. Documentation by Chintan Environ-mental Research and Action Group, in New Delhi’s R K Puram area, showed that the contractors often intimidate, abuse, harass and even beat wastepickers who attempt to ‘break into’ a newly privatized space to carry out their earlier work. Wastepickers collecting waste from the doorstep were disallowed from entering bins for secondary segregation. They took all the waste home, impacting the health of entire communities. Some were stopped from disposing off waste in dhalaos, if they removed the recyclables from it.

India isn’t unique in its rich informal recycling sector. Other countries have this too, and they’ve preserved the system well. Many of them have been able to make good inclusive policy. In Argentina, a zero-waste decree makes it mandatory for private waste handlers to provide facilities for the informal sector to segregate and store recyclable waste. In Rosario, wastepickers have recycling infrastructure and the training to use it. In the Philippines, junk dealers are licensed and performance standards created. Wastepickers at the Smokey Mountain are helped to work safely.

In Colombia, In 2003, under Decree 1713, part 1505, wastepickers are included in solid waste management plans. This was backed by a strong cooperative movement and federation.

Given how Indian policymakers obsess with being world class, these are examples to learn from. If there is one guiding principle that municipal officials must remember, it is this: It is cost effective to encourage the informal sector to work. Recycling more than pays for itself, in this sector. If the informal sector had priority access to all recyclable waste, an important first step would have been taken. This would require backstopping in the form of space for secondary segregation and storage. The non-motorized transport of this sector—cycle rickshaws, non-polluting and green—should be accommodated too.

But this is not enough. Future privatization must take the form of small contracts of under Rs 20 lakh, where micro-enterprises can compete. Current contracts must be stopped, for they are deleterious to India’s own stated vision for progress and the Millennium Development Goals. And only inert, non-recyclable waste should be in landfills. Everything else must be recycled, composted or bio-methanated locally. This can save on transportation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, and stop the poor from becoming poorer. Labour is one of the main skills of the urban poor. Combined with innovation and embedded in good policies, it offers them hope. Otherwise, they are doomed to remain poor, with huge social and economic costs for everyone.

Urbanization rates forecast for India means that our towns and cities will simultaneously house more poor and generate more waste. They can be the sites for innovative policy that addresses both environmental sustainability and urban poverty. Waste provides an invaluable opportunity to do this. Why ignore it, then?"

Courtsey : Down To Earth January 12, 2008 Issue

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reforms Began In Dakshineswar In 1886

01:02:00 - This is not a date but a time. The sun set over Cassipore, Kolkata at this time as at this hour deep in the night or the first dawn, of 16th August 1886, a life, which shook Bengal for many years, attained mahasamadhi. The name, Sri Sri Ramakrishna. But what is important to me is the stirrings of woman’s empowerment and the spirit of reforms that marked the twelfth day ceremony when, the wife breaks all her bangles and strips her body of the jewels and wipes out the sindoor on her forehead and the parting of her hair, to signify widowhood. Also, she must give up wearing red coloured/bordered saris. But, this lady, Sri Sarada Devi, wife of Sri Sri Ramakrishna did not do it because just as she sat by herself at the banks of the Ganges in Dakshineshwar, a suburb of Kolkata, a voice interrupted her. It was the voice of Sri Sri Ramakrishna- “ You cannot be widowed. Keep those bangles on.”

And so it was that despite social ostracism in conservative Bengal of those days, the first stir of reforms were born. Sri Sarada Devi never removed her bangles nor did she stop to wear red-bordered saris.

Indeed, her’s was an extraordinary life. Born on December 22, 1853, in Joyrambati, she was married at the tender age of 5 years to the temple priest Sri Ramakrishna. But, neither was her’s a life of a wife as we may think it to be nor was her husband a priest for that matter, although in both cases, they performed their duties in the respective roles.

Sri Sarada Devi is marked by other acts that break the ‘normal’ cast as both woman and wife. Her relationship with her husband was not a physical one. She had therefore no children. Sri Ramakrishna worshiped her as the Goddess herself, a practice that could be thought to be difficult to bear in those days, when even today, it is the women who are supposed to worship their husbands. On his death, she was left with no pensions and was sent back to her maternal home. For days on end she had nothing to eat except rice with salt. Yet, she never had any complaint on her lips. For, to me she did not only stand as an exemplary example of women’s empowerment in those days but also a tyagi – a person so detached from the needs of the body, she could do without even the basics.

Sri Sarada Devi, known as Ma, passed away in Kolkata in a house now called Udbhodan in Bagbazar area in 1920.

Today in Dakshineswar is the temple where she lived with her renowned husband and avatar, Sri Sri Ramakrishna, lovingly called Thakur, is the room she spent her days in called Nahabat. And at some distance from Dakshineshwar temple, is also the Sri Sarada Math. Across the river Ganges is Belur Math, which was established after Thakur’s mahasamadhi, by his closest followers, best known among them, Swami Vivekananda. Photography inside any Math or temple is prohibited. But I have captured pictures that delight my heart from its outskirts and from the ferry crossing over from Dakshineshwar to Belur. They are reminders of the path of renunciation, in the midst of being a sansarik - the one who lives in the middle of the world, but is not of it.

Getting There
From Kolkata you can go by Local train to Dakshineshwar from Sealdah Station or just drive to it. From Dakshineshwar you can ferry across to Belur Math across the river Ganga. This service is closed during the monsoons when to go to Belur you can take the local train from Howrah Station or again drive to the place. There are also buses available to go to both Dakshineshwar and Belur.

To know more on Sri Sri Ramakrishna


And more about Sri Sarada Devi


Bally Bridge as seen from Dakshineshwar

Panchavati at Dakshineshwar

Ferrying across to the other side

Me-too temples at Belur

Sun setting behind Sri Sarada Math

Dakshineswar Temple as seen from the Ganges

Monkeying around in Dakshineswar

The Golden silt of The Ganges, behind Sarada Math, Dakshineshwar

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

And They Came From Portugal To Bandel

The Port at the Ganga

Inside the Church

Our Lady Of Bon Voyage

The high Tower at The Bandel Church

“The story of Bandel Church begins with the first Portuguese settlement in Bengal. The exact date when the Portuguese first established themselves in Bengal is not known. But historians agree that it was arounf 1537 an Admiral Sampayo entered the river Hoogly with nine Portuguese vessels to support Mahamud Shah, the Pathan Nawab of Gaur, who was hard pressed by the famous Sher Khan, had asked the Portuguese representative in Goa for assistance. As a reward, the Nawab had allowed the Portuguese to set up a factory at a spot close to the present Hoogly Jail.

In 1579 the Portuguese constructed a port on the bank of the river Hoogly. Both the port anf the factory became a center of commerce. To protect their interest, the Portuegese also built a fort. Portuguese conquests always went hand in hand with the spreading of the Gospel. They secured the services of the Augustineian Friars, the largest religious body in Goa at that time and around 1590, about 11 years after they set up Port, a ceratin Captain, Pedro Tavares, a favourite of Emporor Akbar, obtained from him the permission to preach the Christian faith publicly and to erect churches for public worship.

In 1599 a monastery was established at Bandel a mile from the factory. It was shortly followed by two others. A military chapel was added at the ort and an alms-house for the poor was also established, which served as an educational institution where the rich and poor alike received Christian education.

However, in 1622, Prince Harun (Emporor Shah Jahan) revolted against his father Jehangir and asked the Portuguese Governor at Hoogly, Michael Rodrigues, to help him with men and artillery, which he refused. Shah Jehan ascended the thrown in 1628 and began his revenge against the Portuguese. On charges of insolence and oppression, the Emperor gave permission to the Moghul Subedar of Bengal to exterminate the Portuguese. The Subedar laid siege of the Fort and fought a difficult battle with the Portuguese, finally to win over them only because one of Portuguese officers betrayed its own side.

On June 24, 1632, at the feast of St john the Baptist, while everyone attended the service, the enemy having got to know the secret entrance to the Fort, set fire to the arsenal, took possession of the arms and then blew up the fortification. The panic stricken people were massacred. The Governor, was captured and burnt alive and over 4000 men, women and children were made PoW and taken away to Agra, the then capital of the Moghul Empire. All the churches and buildings were razed to the ground. Only the Bandel monastery was spared. Of the five Augustinian Friars made captive only one, Father Joao da Cruz was spared. The aged father, went about his life preaching his faith enraging the Muslims and finally the Emporor who had in fact asked the father to appeal to his people to covert to Islam, was ordered to be bundled with his people and thrown to beasts. However, the execution which was a great Darbar failed as the animals set upon the Christians pacified with their prayers and instead carried Father da Cruz on the back of the biggest elephant and took him to the Emporor and bowed before him!

Taking this as indication of Divine intervention, Father da Cruz and his team sent back to Bandel and presented 777 bighas of land in the Bandel village surrounding the monastery. It is father da Cruz who now started to rebuild the church from its ruins.

The Centre of attraction of this church of the statue of Our Lady of Bon Voyage on the top most part of the fa├žade.”

Presently, a community of Christians live around the Church. But the cultural inheritance of the Portuguese is absent, except for a few houses and in my eyes, much subdued and therefore sad, as unfortunately, in reminds us of this fact that in many parts of India, which has been the home for many dynasties and rulers, the new has grown only when the old was destroyed.

Leaving us with only one conclusion – perhaps the only integrated whole, is the human being, who is a little bit of everything collected from the place of its birth to its place of education and work to its place of death – a little of everything!

Hence, when people ask me if I am a Chistian or a Hindu, a Bengali or Chinese, indeed even a Punjabi(!), all I do is laugh. You must too.

Getting There:
State: West Bengal
Nearest city: Kolkata
Bandel Local Train from Howrah Station, Kolkata, West Bengal.
Take an Autorickshaw from the station to the church. Fare Rs 150 return.

Writer Sarat Chandra's House in Bandel

Vidyasagar lives on in the village girls going to school

....and he who takes us around

Mango grove on the way to Sarat Chandra's house

Source: Historical Sketch, The Prior, Bandel Churh, Hoogly P.O, West Bengal, Pin: 712 103