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Week 2 Webinar Report: Public Health, Sanitation And Waste Management: Is A Decentralized Approach The Way Out?

30 Mar 2021

Week 2 of the Webinar Series “Bengaluru’s Climate Action Plan: Making it Participatory and Inclusive”



Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Commissioner N Manjunatha Prasad, IAS recently wrote to Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, the Chair of ‘C-40 Cities’, voluntarily committing the metropolis of Bengaluru to take steps to achieve the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement: i.e., to take local action that would help the world contain global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

On the occasion of World Water Day ( March 22 2021), Environment Support Group (ESG) commenced a webinar series to discuss and debate what it takes for Bangalore to become a climate friendly metropolis. The series is a process of engaging with multiple thematic issues, concerns and imaginaries of leading officials of various agencies whose functioning impacts the city, with subject matter experts, youth, representatives of various sectors and residents from diverse sections of the city. And it is also a process of collectivising diverse views and solutions with necessary nuance.

In coming together this way, the steps necessary for effective and just waste management, provisioning adequate water and safe housing for all, ensuring universal public health and public mobility, providing infrastructure that is inclusive, and building energy systems that are earth friendly, along with governance that is decentralised and deeply democratic will be interrogated and pragmatic solutions identified for action. In the process we hope to construct an assemblage of visions of Namma Bengaluru and how the metropolis can survive with its limited resources for the benefit of present and future generations and the good of the world.

 Week 2: Public Health, Sanitation And Waste Management: Is A Decentralized Approach The Way Out?

Week 2 Recording

One of the first challenges that climate planning throws up is: how to deal with climate change and its impacts? Is decentralisation of governance the most optimal way out? Public health, sanitation and waste management sectors are intricately linked in not only ensuring all are healthy, but that the toxic impacts of our living are not a burden for future generations.  It has been argued time and again that centralised response strategies are resource heavy and cause societal dysfunctionality, and the way forward is to ensure ward-level governance becomes real in every way, especially in securing public health and sanitation for all. The question is if this will help tackle the impacts of sanitation and waste burdens on public and ecological health, and if there are clear methods to decarbonise waste management whilst ensuring social justice is fundamental, particularly of workers handling waste.  There also are “climate solutions” that need to be interrogated, such as incineration-based waste-to-energy which is being aggressively promoted as a solution.  


Ms. Malvika Kaushik, Research Associate of ESG moderated the second session and started by reminding us of how the city of Bangalore has a rich history of efforts towards decentralised management of waste and yet, in spite of concerted efforts and several judicial directives, much remains to be done to ensure effective and deeply democratic ward-level governance. She explained how the need for climate planning has given us the perfect opportunity to revisit the conundrum of decentralised governance. At the same time, these discussions are incomplete without appreciating the inherent links of waste management with public health and dignity, especially of communities involved in its collection and processing, and those impacted by dumping of toxic waste. She asserted how these questions have become all the more urgent in the post-pandemic society that has become the new reality of our world.

Dr. Tekur commenced his address by acknowledging the efforts of ESG in constantly engaging with the government, judiciary, the affected communities, civil society and also raising awareness about these critical issues like waste management. He defined public health as the availability of health services for all people provided by the state. He went on to address the origin of the concept of sanitation that began with outbreaks like small pox around the world and got localized around two issues-water supply and waste disposal. The concept he believes regained prominence due to the Covid pandemic, with greater awareness about not just individual hygiene but also on matters of sanitation in public places. He described waste plainly as something that is in excess and is unrequired. Dr. Tekur talked extensively on the five core issues that exist around public health-air, water, energy, space and land. He believes there is a high level of pollution in all these five elements that has a negative impact on public health. Asthma which was a common health condition in the northern states of India now sees perennial existence in Bangalore because of the deteriorating air quality in the city. He said that the city has overexploited the water of Cauvery river and depleted groundwater. The prevalence of vitamin-D deficiency and calcium in Bangalore is widespread due to lack of exposure to sunlight and are further getting exacerbated due to the use of technologies like RO in purifiers. He advocated working on lake beds to recharge the groundwater levels of Bangalore.

Is there a way of decentralizing Bangalore from excess industries is a question he poses. He believes solutions to managing waste exist provided that we consider those alternatives seriously. Physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing are four pillars of public health and Dr. Tekur suggested various ways to complement such well-being in urban society. He raised the issue of lack of protective gear for workers handling waste and refers to the study done by ESG that documented health hazards arising out of such exposure to pollutants on a daily basis. According to him, the children, the disabled, the aged and the women are the most vulnerable and catering to their public health must be a priority. He concluded by proposing a solution that big hospitals and jan ausadhis must run a daily OPD to treat minor ailments, because public health is not just about improving health but also constitutes tackling ill health at an early stage.

Mr. Srinivas, based on his experience, highlighted how Bangalore’s waste sector is run by the waste mafia predominantly. This has destroyed Bangalore and a large number of people suffer due to waste management problems and don’t enjoy a good quality of life. The main reason for the existence of this issue, he said, is because waste is dumped unscientifically and illegally. Taking the case of the landfill in Mavallipura as a primary example, he told us how people of the Mavallipura community have been severely affected and many have even died from cancer and liver disease. A large amount of money has been invested for dealing with these issues but the problem somehow doesn’t cease to exist. Not just the air and land but water too is being polluted because of this. People living in these villages that are used as landfills, are forced to drink this contaminated groundwater. He says that there has been some relief because of the PIL filed by ESG and certain interim orders passed by the court, however some orders have remained merely orders without actually being implemented. He is therefore of the opinion that unless the orders are implemented such issues will never get resolved. Mr. Srinivas concludes by pointing out how regardless of the fact that Bangalore has the presence of many scientists and environmentalists, the city somehow continues to suffer without solutions to proper waste management.  

Smt. Gangamma took the discussion forward by highlighting the struggles of the union in past years. She said that despite several reliefs, major issues still exist in their occupation. She exposed the apathy towards her work wherein she is expected to handle waste including “dead rats, dead dogs, and cadavers” but is not recognized or respected for the same. She went on to describe the struggles of the pourakarmikas during the Covid lockdown. Even when the entire country was indoors, they had to come out and perform their duties at the risk of their lives. In return, they were not even provided with amenities like transportation, food, water, protective gear etc. She mentioned her ordeal when trying to negotiate with the BBMP in forms such as threats to their jobs and for unionizing, gender insensitivity etc. Smt. Gangamma expressed her despair over how her wages have risen but are largely tokenistic in a city like Bangalore where the cost of living is expensive.

She questioned the deep and underlying caste-based dominance in her occupation. She said that only Dalits perform the work of handling waste and hence are subject to mistreatment and caste discrimination. However, she also reminisced that they have the power to bring the city to standstill if they quit their duties for even a day. Pourakarmikas are not even given necessary tools like brooms by the BBMP and they use their own money to buy the same. She highlighted how they have no access to proper housing, social security measures and often end up facing exploitative contract systems. She grieved over the fact that even though they risk their lives every day, the pourakarmikas are not involved in any kind of consultation or decision-making processes.

Ms. Maitreyi added on to the arguments by addressing how the workers handling waste are central to any waste management body and therefore the conditions under which they work have to be taken seriously. Without addressing the security of workers, and tackling the caste-based discriminations faced by them on an everyday 

basis, solid waste management can never be fair. There is an immediate need to make provisions for education for the children of such workers to ensure that such caste-based occupations are not perpetuated.

Mrs Poonam asserted that the minimum waste each house generates is 60% of organic waste. She highlighted that nobody in the city is talking enough about the changes required to the way we are designing our urban environments. The problem according to her is that we are not incorporating decentralisation at a ward level or at an apartment-level complex because no one has had the vision to say it is possible. Based on years of work and research, she was of the opinion that this can cut out deeply problematic legacy structures such as the waste mafia. As the metropolis expands the feeling of ownership towards the city declines: “How do we break down and re-define our structure for the next 20 years?” she asked, also stating that repeatedly trying to make legacy systems more efficient is like making the monster bigger and therefore, clearly not a solution. She concluded by saying that decentralisation has the power to break barriers and reduce pollution, as she strongly believes that consumption is not going to reduce easily and this is the only way we can truly begin to start tackling the problem.

Mr. Venkatesh expressed the growing concern around climate change across the globe. He shed light on the various interventions taken by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board under various rules and acts. He acknowledged the right to breathe clean air under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, ensuring which is the responsibility of the state. Air quality of Bangalore has deteriorated significantly over the years and many manual stations and equipment have been installed by the Pollution Control Board to measure the air emission in different parts of the city. He spoke of the statistics collected and warned about the rising levels of particulate matter in the city. He went on to note that four cities in Karnataka have raised alarms for recording particulate matter beyond permissible limit–Bangalore being one of them. He claimed private vehicles to be the main contributor of air pollution in the city. He highlighted various interventions like the National Clean Air Programme announced by the Government of India to tackle the serious issue of air pollution. 

He went on to address the issue of municipal waste and highlighted that since 2016, there have been a lot of new guidelines and parameters under the municipal rules to tackle all sorts of waste. These have helped regulators and local bodies, particularly in managing the hazardous waste, and ensuring its proper disposal.  The concern over rising electronic waste was also raised by Mr. Venkatesh, for which the Pollution Control Board has installed 74 e-waste registers to focus on recycling. For the purpose of management of biomedical waste, 5 units have been installed for collection and disposal. He mentioned that KSPCB has recommended to the BBMP to have collection systems in place in every ward for proper segregation of waste at source, especially for domestic hazardous waste. He mentioned having plastic collection centres at grassroot levels so as to utilise the high calorific value of such plastic waste generation, and concluded by addressing the need to recycle waste more efficiently as per the rules and guidelines laid out in government manuals.

Mr. Randeep, having been a part of the solid waste management and administration department for the last 2 years, was of the opinion that steps to manage waste need to be taken at different stakeholder levels. He pointed out how a small and simple change like home composting shows a visible impact at the end of the entire chain in waste management. He acknowledged that there is a lot of indiscriminate disposal of waste that happens and the workers handling waste and pourakarmika are the biggest sufferers due to this. He emphasized that though BBMP is trying to mechanise waste collection, still tere is a long way before human dependency for tasks like these can be reduced. Where communities have a self sustained decentralised waste management scheme in place, things seem to be working better, he said. He positively pointed out how the rate of waste segregation in Bangalore has increased from a rate of 12-13% a few years ago to 40% today, which indicates a huge step in the right direction. 

Acknowledging statements made by the other speakers, he agreed that Bangalore as a city cannot sustain a centralised waste management solution and needs to move towards a decentralised methodology. Keeping in mind Bangalore’s diversity, he was of the opinion that each ward needs to be handled differently. On a large scale however, a sustainable model needs to be found and waste to energy is a final option, he said. In conclusion, he re-assured that the municipal bodies are trying their best, despite the shocking load of waste generated by the city on a daily basis.

The speakers faced several interesting questions, such as the role of KSPCB in legacy waste management, monitoring of air emissions from landfills, establishment of local wet waste processing centres in all wards of Bengaluru and issues relating to contractualization of solid waste management. Mr. Randeep responded and said that the limiting factor is the general aversion towards waste. He opined that the need of the hour is to have an enlightened citizenry to go ahead with such plans. Ms. Maitreyi also lent her thoughts on the issue of contractualization of solid waste management referring to the remarks of the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka that termed it as cartelization in solid waste. She suggested that the BBMP pull out even the loaders and drivers from this contract system and shift them to direct payment. She also flagged the recent move of constituting a company to dispense the obligatory function of BBMP.

Mr. Leo Saldanha, Coordinator and Trustee of ESG, gave his opinion on how the focus has again come back on the visible and tangible issue of waste management. He explained how it is a human tendency to address issues of the present and the lack of foresight to perceive future problems. He recalled his discussions with Dr. Nagendran where they used to discuss the role of the judiciary in setting right the perception imbalance. The city operates on an annual budget and plans, however environmental issues like climate change do not operate in a similar fashion, and needs more progressive thinking and action, Mr. Saldanha believes. He posed a very critical question of the disparity that exists in various occupations, while a doctor never goes into an operation theatre without proper hygiene and dress, the pourakarmikas are sent to handle waste everyday without proper gear and tools. He concluded by highlighting the need for soul-searching to fight issues like climate change when we are failing miserably in tackling issues like waste.

Ms. Poonam addressed a very important question about whether decentralization is affected more by technology or behavioural aspects. She said that besides technology and behaviour, the aspect of acceptance as a social norm also plays a crucial role in decentralization. She gave the example of the transition towards composting that involved not just technology and social acceptance, but also the factor of  time in changing the outlook towards managing waste. She also lamented about the inadequate financial allocation to the waste infrastructure in the city. She acknowledged efforts by Mr. Randeep to manage the waste of the city. She drew a parallel between the urban realities where the young generation is encouraged to become financial moguls, but on the other hand the pourakarmikas continue to face caste-based discrimination.

On another note, Mr. Saldanha observed how data collated in the country is handed over to foreign universities, to access which information a person has to pay money. This inability to access sovereign data on public health is problematic. Mr. Randeep opined that data sharing is crucial but one must not be charged for it.

Dr. Tekur summarised the session by saying that the concentration towards waste disposal has to shift towards generating less waste in the first place. He called out the current norm of online ordering that comes at a huge expense of packaging material and then ends up in the landfills. He talked about the need to practise minimalism to tackle waste, and to tune our thinking towards reduction of waste. He said that Indian culture has in-built mechanisms of waste reduction. These can emerge only when decentralized ward-level actions are initiated and allowed to innovate. 

All unanswered questions will be collated and sent to our speakers for their responses, besides detailed reports on the deliberations in these webinars after each session.

ESG will continue the webinar series “Bangalore’s Climate Action Plan: Making it Participatory and Inclusive” next Monday, 05th April 2021 (6:00 – 7:30 pm on Zoom) addressing the theme: Making Bengaluru Water Secure”. More details on this webinar series can be accessed at www.esgindia.org. A recording of the webinar is accessible at https://youtu.be/QnJrxc9wI6U.

Speaker Profiles

Sri. Randeep D, IAS, Special Commissioner (SWM & Admin), BBMP

Mr. Randeep is an officer of Indian Administrative Service of the Batch of 2006. He holds a B.E in Electronics and Communication and a Master’s degree in Public Policy. He has held the position of Special Commissioner, SWM & Administration in BBMP since July 2018. His interests include playing cricket, reading books and cycling.

Sri. S. Venkatesh Shekar, Chief Environmental Officer, KSPCB

Mr. Shekar is currently working as Chief Environmental Officer in the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Civil, Master of Planning in Environment. He has over 30 years of experience in environmental management. He is a member on the panel constituted by the Government of India and the Government of Karnataka to frame guidelines on waste management techniques. He is also an Expert member on SWM in the BBMP.

Dr. Shirdi Prasad Tekur, Trustee, Environment Support Group, Paediatrician and Community Health Expert

Retired as Captain from the Indian Army, Dr. Tekur has extensive training experience in various public health and counselling services, and is also a consultant on disaster management and rehabilitation matters. He holds an MBBS, MCH and has worked in the formation of the Community Health Cell and in establishing Community Health Departments in various hospitals and medical colleges.

Sri. Srinivas, Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, Mavallipura, Bangalore

Mr Srinivas is an activist for farmers’, workers’ and environmental rights, and has 

been actively involved in the struggle against illegal waste dumping at Mavallipura. He is the State General Secretary of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti-Kempa Seve and the workers’ union president at two private companies. He is also currently serving as a paralegal volunteer at the District Legal Services Authority for Bangalore Urban District. 

Smt. Gangamma & Ms. Maitreyi, BBMP Powrakarmikara Sangha

The BBMP Pourakarmika Sangha is the registered trade union of pourakarmikas in Bengaluru. It has been fighting for over a decade for the rights of pourakarmikas. It led the struggle for the removal of the exploitative and corrupt contract system and towards the recognition of pourakarmikas across the state of karnataka as the direct employees of the BBMP 

Smt. Poonam Bir Kasturi, Founder, Daily Dump

Mrs. Kasturi is the founder of Daily Dump and has spent the last 15 years understanding decentralised composting solutions for urban environments. She enjoys the intersection of design, culture, climate action and systems change.

[This report has been prepared by Shrestha Chowdhury and Satvika Krishnan, Research Associates at ESG. Leo Saldanha and Bhragavi Rao at ESG provided inputs.]

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