Games,Garbage, and Gurgaon

Visit the website of Gurgaon’s civic authority  and the visual that unfolds on your screen might confuse you.

The Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon sports such a dazzling picture of Haryana’s show case city on its home page that it will make you wonder if you have landed on the wrong site. Is this the suburb town that has roads with bigger and deeper craters than the surface of the Moon? Is this the place where residents organize dharnas in  the hope of  drawing official attention to the giant mounds of rotting waste  that are dumped casually outside their colonies?  Yes, you are confused.

But stop right there. You have arrived in Gurgaon. Scroll down and you shall see a row of  ambitious announcements made by the MCG, all aimed at achieving better governance in the spiffiest (supposedly..) corner of Haryana.. The latest among these is the one that  prohibits “all commercial establishments, licensed colonies, group housing societies situated within the MCG limits……from dumping garbage in any place except the designated site.” And if anyone  is caught in the act he or she will be cast behind the bars.

Posted just before the Commonwealth Games commenced, the Order could not have been more aptly timed. And all of us who brave the innards of Gurgaon everyday to go to work were impressed by the speed with which the radials of the city were cleaned up. Even the malodorous roundabout, a couple of  kilometers away from the Delhi-Gurgaon border--so fittingly named Kachda (garbage) Chowk--lost its stink. Gurgaon, we rejoiced, was Being Cleaned Up.

But alas! The junk had not disappeared. It  had just been relocated. While the outer layer of the city had begun to shine, the colonies lying in the inner circles of Gurgaon  suddenly looked shockingly shabby. These compounds are taken care of by licensed residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) or housing societies. These, in turn, employ private operators to collect and dispose of the tonnes of solid waste generated daily in the households within. The arrangement, in normal circumstances, works well enough. But in these ‘abnormal’ times it was visibly falling apart. The lanes inside the colonies were drowned in garbage, with plastic bottles, decaying vegetables, broken glass pieces strewn all over. This flood of filth had spilled over to Gurgaon’s arterial roads as well. The litter bins standing outside the gates had practically disappeared under the burden of waste.

So what went wrong? Well, when in the run up to the Games, the Gurgaon authorities decided to remove the slums, and drive out (albeit temporarily) the panic stricken people living there beyond the borders, they obviously had not realised how lethally this move is going to affect their Clean-Up operations. With the slum population gone, the lowest and the most critical link in the ranks of the city’s waste managers had gone missing too. It is this legion of  rag pickers who are “informally” used by the private agencies to do a vast range of jobs. How vast? Sample this. Their responsibilities include door-to-door collection of garbage; sorting and segregating different kinds of waste; and then putting it out in the local dumpsters ready to be carted off to the landfills. No wonder, therefore, their sudden disappearance had turned Gurgaon’s upmarket settlements into fly-infested dumpyards!

The situation would probably improve in a week or two. As the banished workforce return, and resume work. But this is a good time to ponder on the lessons learnt (or at least should be learnt) from this. First, government orders, enforced with the best of intentions, are bound to backfire if they are not backed up by an organised and efficient infrastructure. Every cog, however insignificant, has to be in place to run the machine and to deliver.

Second and more importantly, it is time that our governance system acknowledges and integrates the informal workforce. Slums might be eyesores, but the people living in them offer services that are absolutely indispensable to the residents of a city like Gurgaon. Especially the population in its new wing, which is predominantly made up of working professionals. The emptying of the shanties had brought every household to a grinding halt. Because the maids, the cooks and the handymen who empowered, yes I am using the word deliberately, all the members of a typical middle class family to go out to work, were not pitching in anymore!

But defining the rights of slum dwellers is a larger issue and merits more space, more attention, and more analysis. Lets focus on the issue of waste management for now. The CWG fortnight has certainly driven home the message that the un-uniformed, un-licensed and therefore un-official rag pickers are an immensely useful workforce. They lighten the burden of municipal authorities by several million rupees a year in collection, transport and disposal costs. Why can’t they be systematically and officially inducted into the scheme of waste management? They can be organised to interact with the RWAs directly, allotted localities and treated as entrepreneurs. This will ensure better income and hence cleaner living conditions.  Of course they would need support and hand-holding initially, though some of them already work in groups which are surprisingly well-coordinated.  As for the government, isn’t this a far more constructive remedy, than calling in the police battalion every time Gurgaon needs to be spruced up?     

Tags: Garbage,