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A resident throws a bag of rubbish into a roadside dump in Bengaluru. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National
A resident throws a bag of rubbish into a roadside dump in Bengaluru. Amirtharaj Stephen for The National

Bengaluru's grass-roots movement to clean up India's Garden City

Residents take matters into their own hands as country's trash blight reaches a state capital once famous for its bucolic parks. Samanth Subramanian reports from Bengaluru

BENGALURU // Residents fed up with waiting for government action have begun a grass-roots movement to clean up India's Garden City.

Bengaluru, the capital of India's high-tech industry, was once famous for its lush spaces such as Cubbon Park, which spans more than 300 acres and is home to more than 150 types of trees and plants.

But now, the city is infamous for its mounds of rubbish.

Litter lies uncollected in quiet neighbourhoods, spills out of bins on large main roads, and sits in piles on street corners. In the composting lot of the Karnataka Compost Development Corporation, the hills of waste are so high that it looks like it will take years to compost them.

Rubbish is a blight across India. Litter is common in big cities and rural villages, creating unsanitary conditions and underscoring government mismanagement. Small citizens' movements have sprung up in response.

In Bengaluru, residents have banded together to come up with immediate solutions - including hiring private contractors even though they pay tax to have the rubbish removed - as well as working on bigger ideas.

The city's population has exploded over the past two decades, from 6.5 million in 2001 to more than 9 million in 2011. Simultaneously, its output of waste has risen, from 1,450 tonnes per day in 2000 to around 4,000 tonnes per day today, according to government figures.

The crisis began because of a major flaw in the city's waste-disposal policy, said NS Ramakanth, 75, a member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table, a citizens' group. "The city was sending mixed waste to landfills," he said. "Waste wasn't segregated at the source, and so it couldn't be processed at all."

As the landfills on Bengaluru's outskirts grew in size, poisoning the groundwater and emitting noxious fumes, neighbouring villages began to protest. One by one, the landfills were closed down, and dump lorries began to illegally deposit waste.

Over the past year, Bengaluru's rubbish collectors have repeatedly gone on strike, claiming unpaid wages, mistreatment, and unsatisfactory contracts.

"That was when the rubbish really started piling up," said Meera Krishnamoorthy, who helps run Citizen Matters, a city newspaper.

It was around this time that citizens began to take matters into their own hands. In 2011, The Ugly Indians, a group consisting of young professionals, decided to "stop talking, start doing". They took to the streets with brooms and rubbish bags and began cleaning up street by street.

In her neighbourhood of Bellandur, Ms Krishnamoorthy joined Forward 150, a group of residents who were trying to tackle the rubbish menace.

"We tried to persuade the people staying in the apartments in the area to segregate their waste and dispose of each category separately," she said. Volunteers in each apartment building put a segregation system into place.

In October, thanks to a petition filed by the round table, segregating rubbish at the source became mandatory.

Residents' associations in Bellandur also hired private contractors to remove segregated waste.

Ms Krishnamoorthy's building of around 120 apartments, for instance, pays roughly 8,000 rupees (Dh530) a month for the removal.

"It sets a bad precedent, I agree, because citizens are now paying private contractors to clear their rubbish even though they're also paying for it through their taxes," Ms Krishnamoorthy said. "But there was no choice. Many residents felt it was important to just get the place clean."

Forward 150 is also attempting to set up a pilot waste processing centre in the neighbourhood, working with the municipal authorities.

"We told the authorities: 'We will guarantee you good quality waste. Then you can make money off recyclables, or off generating biogas from organic waste'," she said.

In fact, Mr Ramakanth said, this is part of the larger solution that Bengaluru is moving towards. "Some contracts for decentralised processing of waste have been given out," he said.

"We're trying to prove to the authorities that these local processing plants are a good thing.

"They'll save on transport costs, because they don't have to cart the waste all the way to a landfill.

"And they'll save the environment, because they won't be polluting the land of some village."

It is a message the group is also taking to business. "We're teaching big polluters the concept of 'Polluter pays'," Mr Ramakanth added. "We're telling marriage halls and hotels and software parks that they must make plans to handle their own waste, instead of depending on the municipality.

"It will take time for people to mend their habits. But things are finally moving forward."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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