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... and the lessons in it for us

All of us love to criticise the municipal corporation for what we see as its utter mismanagement of the solid waste collection programme. The truth is, really, that compared with cities in the west the municipal corporation here does far more. It is we citizens who are pampered silly.

As the communications in the previous piece show, all cities, except for Hong Kong, collect garbage only two or three times a week. In London it is just once a week. Contrast that with Mumbai where garbage is collected once a day; even in places where the municipal corporation is terribly errant in its duties garbage is collected at least several times a week.

Equally important, the urban citizen in a western country is called upon to do much more than we do here in the matter of garbage. In Mumbai, as in most other cities, we feel that our responsibility ends when we place our garbage can outside our flats. What happens to the garbage after that is none of our business. Given such attitudes it is hardly surprising that we are landed with problems of the sort we face.

Come to think of it, our garbage collection system is totally silly. In each housing society garbage from individual houses is emptied into a large can taken around by the garbage man or woman. This garbage can is then taken to the public garbage bin and emptied loose. It would be a simple matter to place a large plastic bag in the can taken around to individual houses. After this is full it can then be tied and placed in the public bin.

Won't rag pickers open this plastic bag and scatter all the contents around? This is a genuine risk. But it should probably be easily sorted out if the housing societies near each public garbage bin hire a man for a few hours each morning to make sure that sealed plastic bags placed in the bin are not opened until they are taken away by the corporation. To take one example, the bin near the Marol-Maroshi bus stop can be protected by societies in Vijay Nagar, Bhawani Nagar and so on. The cost shouldn't work out to more than a few rupees per resident per month.

Doing this won't be easy, however. It will call for far more initiative from us than we have shown so far. And citizens alone can accomplish only so much. The municipal corporation needs to join hands with housing societies and with local organisations like Lions Clubs and so on. After all it makes no sense for 20 buildings to put their garbage in plastic bags if 20 others don't do so. Together with coaxing housing societies and individuals to place their garbage in bags the municipal corporation must levy big fines on violators.

Right now, each truck sent by the municipal corporation to pick up garbage has four to five workers. This many are needed because the loose garbage must be swept into bins before being loaded into the truck. If citizens take the trouble of putting their garbage into trucks two workers per truck will suffice. According to a web site on garbage collection in California, each truck has only one worker in addition to the driver, who too helps in loading garbage into the truck. Once such a programme is implemented, the costs of the solid waste management department of the municipal corporation will fall. These savings must be passed on to housing societies in the form of lower property taxes if the cooperation of citizens is to be enlisted.

Another point to be noted in the communications sent from abroad is that many cities have privatised their garbage collection. Either citizens directly pay these companies or the municipality pays these companies on behalf of citizens.

There will be a few complaints. The system outlined above calls for the use of plastic bags to store garbage. And plastic bags are hardly popular among environmentalists these days. One solution would be to ban the use of thin PVC bags. That would compensate for the additional use of plastic bags for garbage. Also, individual households need not be asked to put their garbage in plastic bags but housing societies would be required to.

Finally, this system would deprive ragpickers of their source of livelihood, which would be especially sad because they perform a vital social service now. One solution would be to employ them in separating waste into paper, plastic, recyclables and so on at municipal centres where garbage is collected.