Environment Support Group
CampaignsESG Imaginaries to Make Cities WorkWaste ManagementWebinars

Week 1 Report: Waste And Governance

INHAF and ESG presents ESG Imaginaries To Make Cities Work  as part of INHAF webinar series on Rethinking Cities

Held on 7th of July 2022

Habitat Forum INHAF has been organising a series of webinars on Rethinking Cities since 2020. ESG was invited to collaborate and organise a few webinars on the theme. The invitation was gratefully accepted by ESG, now in its 25th year, and ESG Imaginaries To Make Cities Work (ESG here being, Environmental, Social Justice and Governance Initiatives) is the outcome.  This series of webinars provide focus on several key thematic activities of ESG over the decades and reflections from invited speakers actively engaged in those sectors. 

The 1st webinar as part of the ESG Imaginaries To Make Cities Work was on the theme Waste And Governance and held on 7th July 2022 (5-7 pm). Kirthee Shah, Founder President of INHAF set the tone by explaining the background to the series. The webinar was anchored by Leo F. Saldanha, Coordinator and Trustee of ESG, and Bhargavi S. Rao, Trustee and Senior Fellow at ESG, who also provided an introduction to ESG’s diverse efforts on governance of waste management, and its implications to governance overall. Respondents were Prof. Amita Bhide, Dean, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Rizwana Hasan of Bangladesh Environmental Law Alliance; Maitreyi Krishnan of Manthan Law and Shibu Nair of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

Providing an overview of ESG’s work on the theme over two and half decades, Bhargavi Rao and Leo Saldanha highlighted the lack of compliance with the Constitutional mandate for decentralisation as per the Constitutional 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992 has worked to limit the multiple imaginaries of cities across India, and created a condition where prevailing urban environmental crises are receiving centralised and technocratic treatment devoid of democratic and public involvement. Rao held the “Bangalore and other cities are in a big mess because centralised government approaches have continuously drifted away from constitutional mandates”  She highlighted the importance of “reflecting on initiatives that ESG” which advocates deeply decentralised, environmentally and economically viable practices in waste management, and invited the respondents to “share their own experiences and efforts in each of the cities they come from, in helping construct better imaginaries for the future considering the consequences people will have to face if these efforts are not invested”.

ESG’s work towards humanisation and decentralisation of waste management:

Ms. Bhargavi Rao, ESG

Rao described ESG’s work with Pourakarmikas since the 1990s, which commenced with two wards of Bangalore South.  First and foremost, she highlighted, was the task of treating workers as Professionals and ensuring their occupational needs were met: conducting health camps, developing health cards, documenting their living and working conditions, and submitting reports and proposals for reform to the city government.  Most crucially, the capacity of workers to train local populations on segregating waste at source was focused upon, which helped build their self-confidence in overcoming caste/class barriers – which were baby steps of a long pending social reform. She drew focus to how these efforts also responded to the Precautionary Principle, to the Principle of Intergenerational Equity, Polluter Pays Principle, of upholding human dignity of all, etc. Nagara Nyrmalya, a film produced by ESG in 2000 as part of this process, forestage a woman pourakarmika as the protagonist, and continues to be a film relevant and popular to this day. Such efforts are ongoing, though challenges of securing sincere commitments from the wide public and the city authorities to decentralised waste management remain, Rao shared.

Promoting Governance Reforms to ensure Waste Management is Environmentally Sound, Economically Viable and Socially Just 

Saldanha shared how ESG’s efforts were to systematically build progressive approaches, ground up, so the overall effort would be environmentally sound, economically viable and socially just.  Such efforts, he recalled, had already been promoted across India, and Anslem Rosario led efforts through Waste Wise from the 1980s. But the lack of appreciation in higher echelons of power to this method of waste management, he argued, has resulted in the prevailing  mounting waste management challenge which is also a massive health issue.  He shared how ESG took the opportunity of support received under the Indo-Norwegian Environment Programme to build what arguably was the first major Solid Waste Management Action Plan for any city in Karnataka.  The city was a mess despite its hoary past. Pourakarmikas’ living and working conditions had not yet changed, when compared with the findings of the IPD Salappa Committee Report of the 1970s. And there was absolutely no regard of the critical importance of not mixing hazardous and biomedical waste into the municipal waste stream, which, in turn, was contaminating drinking water sources. Such neglect persists even to this day, Saldanha highlighted and drew attention to the deaths recently in Raichur from drinking contaminated water.

Mr Leo Saldanha,ESG

Similarly, Saldanha shared how handling biomedical waste is a mounting challenge, especially through and after the Covid pandemic, and Pourakarmikas are directly affected by this systemic neglect.  He shared anecdotes of how “Even on getting the protective gears, they were not distributed among workers”.  Such neglect, he argued, is a direct outcome of the “caste and class divisions that are systematically integrated with our society and endemic to our governance”.  The most serious issue is that 30000 Pourakarmikas of Bengaluru who contact such highly infectious and contaminated waste are at high risk of contracting do not have the knowledge whether the disease is airborne, waterborne or something else but they just do their work without any protection. 

Tackling Landfills and getting to think deeply about Plastic waste

Rao shared ESG’s surveys on plastic use from 2006 & 2009, and of the reasons why use of single use plastic was so widespread, particularly by shopkeepers and street vendors.  The systematic support for the production of such plastics, especially because of the incentivisation of profit of the petrochemicals sector is to be blamed.  The mounting challenge of accumulation of plastics in the waste stream, along with biomedical and industrial wastes, was first raised by the predominantly Dalit villagers of Mavaillipura who protested the dumping of Bengaluru’s waste in their village commons and forests. Responding to their call for help in dealing with this crisis, ESG helped build a systematic approach and convinced environmental regulators, city officials and also the Judiciary on rejecting landfills as a solution to waste management.  

This struggle of Mavallipura villagers helped question the model of waste management, where the city dumps on neighbouring villages with irreversible health and environmental consequences, which are documented in ESG’ two reports,Rao shared: “Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy, 2010” and “Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy Intensifies, 2018).  Saldanha shared how such efforts help build a city-wide consensus against land filling and a progressive movement for decentralised governance of waste. 

Unprecedented Reforms in Waste Management guided by Judicial Action

Saldanha shared how in response to ESG’s Public Interest Litigation, and also various other related matters, the Karnataka High Court directed Local and State Governments and regulatory agencies  to “not only decontaminate those landfills but also to compensate for the losses of the community whose fundamental right to live was violated”. Besides, the Court directed authorities to tackle alleged corrupt practices in waste management which had been systematised due to privatisation, and also to tackle the exploitation of Pourakarmikas. Responding to ESG’s suggestions, the Court also directed the Karnataka Government to constitute Ward Committees as mandated in the Nagarpalika Act, as a key means of building bottom up responses to waste crises, and which also resulted in massive governance reforms state wide.

Saldanha also shared how in response to ESG’s interventions the Court restrained the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change from formalising the Draft Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules 2013, which contained highly regressive support for incineration of waste – globally acknowledged to be a highly toxic and wasteful process, and proceeded to directed the Ministry to hold nation-wide public hearings on the need for reform of then prevailing Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000. The outcome, Saldanha shared, is the 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules, which were evolved to match the progressive directions of the Karnataka High Court in response to PILs initiated by ESG and others.        

Rao shared how ESG continues with its efforts promoting systematic decentralisation and improving efficiency of urban governance which she held is key to tackling waste crises.  As part of this process, in coordination with Mangalore Municipal Corporation, Imphal Environment Department, and various civil society organisations within India and abroad, especially the Break Free from Plastic Coalition, ESG held a series of workshops to bring multiple sectors together in imagining progressive ways forward. Similarly, ESG collaborates with cities, municipalities, civil society, trade unions, academia, media, etc. in building awareness and promoting progressive reform of the waste management sector, Saldanha highlighted.   

Ms. Syeda Rizwana Hasan

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, a senior lawyer of Bangladesh, 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize awardee, who heads the Bangladesh Environmental Law Alliance, shared her experiences working to reform the waste management sector in her country. At the outset she describe the situation as dismal, and no different from that in India. In Bangladesh, particularly, the legislative approach is much delayed, she highlighted: “National solid waste management law was enacted only in 2021, 50 years after we got our independence”.  

Hasan pointed out to the high rate of in-country migration from villages to urban areas , especially as a means of coping with the impacts of climate change, particularly in coastal areas, has broken urban governance systems and the capacity of cities to manage waste efficiently. Due to the lack of collection of waste, much of it ends up in water bodies and wetlands, and citing a study shared that 90 percent of municipal waste and 70 percent of industrial waste ends up in different water bodies of Bangladesh. 

As per Hasan, Bangladesh is one of the first countries to ban polythene bags but currently most of the waterbody beds of Bangladesh have 5 to 8 metres of polythene covers which has been the major cause of floods this year. Further, there are issues with farmers losing their land and leaching of waste. She shared that Bangladeshi environment lawyers association has also raised issues of importing waste to Bangladesh as the major    problem that is making Bangladesh deal with hundreds of tons of waste.


Hasan further shared about the allocation of a flood prone area as a landfill in Bangladesh which was allowed instead of being against the law. Further, she shared about the dumping of waste in the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh from the developed world. 


Ms. Amita Bhide


Prof. Amita Bhide began her response by suggesting that locating waste management approaches has potential for transformative urbanisms and this can help organise urban governance. Addressing the complexities in the waste management sector, she highlighted an unique phenomenon due to the municipalization of waste – waste being treated as municipal property. It is important to look into what kind of waste is being profited from and how the contracts are being awarded to particular agencies, she suggested.  

With the introduction of waste management rules, there is also an introduction of several new layers in the waste management sector, Bhide highlighted. Besides, the State plays a crucial role in identifying and legitimising the nexus between landfills and the land economy. Bhide wondered “what gets considered as ‘waste’ or rendered valueless and how is it then converted into a highly valuable resource?” The challenge that state and municipal governments face in reviving a former landfill site, and integrating it into the land economy, needs to be further investigated. Further, the role of Union government and the Finance Commission needs to be assessed in how this value is placed on waste.

Describing an instance in Maharashtra where a bulk of the finance is used to set up waste to energy plants, which have failed to function, Bhide drew attention to the inefficiencies innate to prevailing modes of decision making and posed the question: “Whose capacities are we building?”  Citing agreements on handling hazardous waste which demanded larger players coming into the picture, what with onerous requirements to obtain licences and certificates, she wondered if this also meant restricting access to possibly safe livelihoods that could be sustained through the waste stream. 

In reference to widely practised methods of leaning on PILs as a strategy to advance effective waste management, and as a tool for policy change and implementation, Bhide, relying on her  experience as a member of an expert committee appointed by the municipal corporation of Mumbai, wondered if the numerous PILs were confounding the situation. Drawing attention to the complex political economy of the waste sector, she shared how it was difficult to relate this to the actual functioning of the corporation. A socio-political analysis of the scenario is sorely missing, she argued. Instead, the emphasis is on technocratic fixes, and thus mismanagement remained unresolved. Bhide drew attention to the crucial importance of addressing the transportation economy of waste, what with its heavy carbon and budgetary footprint and its embeddedness in the political economy of city politics. Understanding this is crucial to the prevailing practice of collecting mixed waste and sending them off to landfills far away. The mediator of and the distance between the producer of waste and its final destination, is yawning, and this greatly adds to complexities of governance, especially in large cities. She ended by referring once more to the reliance on PILs to resolve waste management issues, and suggested civil society must relook these strategies for sustainable transformation.

Mr. Shibu Nair

 “When we  discuss governance in waste management it is something nonexisting when it comes to India”,  is the statement with which Shibu Nair commenced his response. He proceeded to highlight how “when we look at the kind of systems we are in and if you look at the history (of these systems), it is more or less an extension of our sanitation program. Which, at the government level, is reliant on some funds coming from international level to extend some support to build toilets. Then the toilets are not used and repurposed at the household level”. Similarly, he argued, solid waste management “is an outcome due to pressure from other governing structures, often outside the country particularly international financial agencies”.  The supposition was that the innate capacity of local and regional governments to organise an organic response to this massive and growing problem was stymied.  In fact, Nair suggested, the purpose of the prevailing waste management system is “not to solve the issue”.  It is all designed to perpetuate the crises.

However, Nair said there are “some gradual changes in solid waste management that are seen in India when it comes to system design”. The earlier approach of treating it as a sanitation problem has now “moved to a public health issue, (as in the response) to chikungunya in Kerala, plague in Surat and other such epidemics elsewhere”.  He said it is high time to address this challenge as an “environmental health matter and also from a climate” perspective.

While there is no perfect solution or a perfect system for solid waste management, he argued that burning it or hiding it in sanitary landfills, or just sending it to other countries, where it is dealt with by underprivileged people, smacks of environmental racism. Western cities, he said, may all seem very clean. But that apparent cleanliness is built on export of waste to Southern countries, thus deeply racist and exploitative. And it is no different within India, as well, where waste is exported from economically vibrant urban spaces into regions where underprivileged and  marginalised communities live.  

Nair focusing on Indian governance approach to the waste sector highlighted that most governmental interventions focused on building infrastructure, and this is not a surprise as “upto 40% of finance allocated goes as  bribes”. This is the real motivation for centralised governmental response to waste management plans in India, he cautioned. In fact the waste management problem doesn’t come up for resolution, but more as a money spinner. The need of the hour is genuine public involvement and a massive effort to systematically improve the entire system with social engagement.

Ms. Maitreyi Krishnan

Maitreyi Krishnan began by sharing the extraordinary resolve with which Pourakarmikas from across Karnataka have struggled over the decades, and particularly in the past week struck work (in 31 districts), the outcome of which is that almost all their demands have been accepted by the Chief Minister of Karnataka. This success was a comprehensive rejection and frontal attack on the prevailing waste management policies that endemise exploitation and oppression of workers.  In fact, in all of the efforts of urban governance, the pourakarmikas are completely invisibilized: “they are unseen and neglected”.

“It is a caste ordained profession”, Krishnan declared.  She went on to analyse: “If we look at who the workers are one thing is pretty much clear. They are Dalit workers, predominantly women.  In effect if we look at it, it is a form of institutionalised caste system.”

Working as they do 7 days a week and 365 days a year, with minimum wages, makes it impossible for them to move out of this deeply exploitative and violent system. And then it also becomes an intergenerational problem as their low or outcaste reality prevent their integration into society. Moreover, this slips them into and wedges them into an exploitative economic system which “when they don’t have money, the education of their children becomes an issue.  Their children are compelled to go into this caste oriented occupation. There is a lack of respect and dignified working conditions given by the corporation. There is untouchability being rampantly practised”. 

Most workers are women, and there is widespread sexual harrassment and gender based violence. She commented: “Those who are involved in framing Solid Waste Management policy, it is never those who are involved in doing the work. The policies treat people as if they are just two hands and two legs who are actually cleaning the place.  The idea of them as citizens does not exist to those framing the policies.”

The webinar concluded with some responses from the audience.   

The next webinar will be on 14th July 2022 on the theme: “Challenges of Securing Urban Commons”.  

Please register to participate in this webinar series:https://www.inhaf.org/webinar/esg-imaginaries-to-make-cities-work-day-2/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *