...and not for garbage

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Because the primary resource, apart from land, is people. Ragpickers are human resource

it is not easy to determine the amount of garbage India produces. No large corporations see business opportunities in it, political parties do not see votes in it, the media does not see stories in it. Stands to reason the Planning Commission has not proposed a grand plan to make India the world's top garbage handler. All this could end one fine day, when somebody with the right connections would show how large corporations can make money from garbage incinerators. Then there will be a flood of rent-a-policy-paper economists, arguing how consumers should be made to pay for the garbage that an incorporated company can burn to make a small amount of power and a large amount of carcinogenic dioxins (and get carbon credits for it). Cancer? There is always the health insurance industry to support the needy who can pay the right premium.

There is a lot of money in garbage, which is why the world over this sector is closely controlled by capitalism's illegitimate child, the mafia. That is because there is also a lot of garbage.

Any given day, just 59 major Indian cities can produce a moderately-sized mountain weighing 39,033 tonnes, according to a 2004 (under) estimate. Given the global economy's travails, toxic debt may not be the biggest danger with a filthy name.

Garbage collected from every Indian city is taken to its outskirts, from where it becomes a story only when hovering birds run into aircraft engines. But the birds are not the only life that exists around the dumps. There are villages nearby, where people drink water and irrigate their fields--with water polluted with leachate. There are children with skin sores, young people without spouses.

And there are urchins. They tackle the garbage mafia and the police (thanks to the uniform, they are distinguishable), they battle and befriend scavenging dogs, several engage in petty crime. While they do all this, they sift garbage and do what environmental economists do not: they recycle it. Not out of altruism but for a living. A government bothered about generating green employment would make a serious effort to organize ragpickers.

From scavengers and hunter-gatherers to settled society was a long journey for humans. It is worth revisiting it, for the sake of our nostrils and skin.

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