11 December 2017

How not to waste a garbage crisis in Bengaluru

In 2012, the city of Bengaluru/Bengalore, home to India’s IT industry and to innovative forms of civic activism, hit the national and international media headlines due to a dramatic breakdown of its garbage collection and disposal systems. A special e-issue of International Development Policy (November 2017), jointly edited by Shalini Randeria, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology and Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, and Christine Lutringer, Senior Research Fellow at the same centre, delineates the policy shifts and changes in practices of solid waste management in Bangalore that followed the “garbage crisis”. Contributors argue that the role of urban middle classes as consumers and as citizens is key to understanding urban environmental governance in India, which in turn offers lessons for the global South. More details with Professor Randeria.

Could you brief us about the project on which the special issue is based?

It was a comparative research project that analysed changing patterns and practices of food consumption and solid waste management in two megacities of South and South-East Asia – Bangalore (India) and Metro Manila (Philippines). It was funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS) from 2013 to 2015. The focus of the special issue is, however, narrower than that of the research project, as the issue centres on Bangalore alone, the city that is India’s IT hub city that boasts a rapidly growing middle class, which combines global aspirations with interesting local initiatives. The special issue addresses a variety of interlinked themes: changes in food consumption patterns due to growing prosperity, IT innovations in waste segregation and disposal at the neighbourhood level, legal activism and the role of courts in changing policy, rural-urban linkages in waste management and governance problems at the municipal level.

Our research focused on a variety of aspects of middle-class civic engagement that changed urban waste management practices and policies in this southern Indian city. The articles draw on two theoretical perspectives that were brought into dialogue with one another in our project, namely the anthropology of policy and social practice theory. While the former focuses on the formulation and implementation of policies relevant to sustainable food consumption and solid waste management, the latter is concerned with analysing the changing sociocultural meanings and practices of food consumption in the home as well as outside it. The authors examine not only discursive shifts in policy but also material changes in solid waste management practices. But moving beyond the specificities of the city, we ask, for example, if ad hoc, piecemeal protest on environmental or urban governance issues is not due to a middle-class tendency to bypass local democratic bodies and broad-based consultative processes in favour of quick-fix technological solutions or expensive litigation, and whether a more radical critique of neoliberal urban planning and exclusionary development models is not called for instead if the realities of urban environmental degradation are to be taken seriously.

What are the main themes of the special issue?

The issue addresses three interwoven themes: (1) changes in food consumption among the city’s middle classes by tracing transformations in household-level practices of eating out, shopping, storing food, cooking, disposal of leftovers and solid waste within the home; (2) changes in environmental consciousness as well as in public advocacy of “greening” practices and sustainable technologies related to solid waste management at the levels of the household, the neighbourhood and the city; and (3) the role of activists and courts in crafting and monitoring new norms around solid waste management and their implementation by various actors (municipal authorities, residents’ associations and individual consumers, restaurant owners and IT firms). The issue thus provides a variety of perspectives on practices and policies aimed at sustainable consumption, which are analysed against the backdrop of larger processes of the transformation of the political economy, urban governance and civic engagement in India. Both as consumers and as citizens, the new middle classes are increasingly influential in shaping political priorities and agendas in urban India.

Besides contributions by various team members, the issue also features an insightful interview with activists in Bangalore, who have played a key role in changing waste management policy. Judicial interventions as a result of middle-class activism on urban environmental governance have played a pivotal role in formulating new norms and enacting formal rules and policies. We explore the implementation of these new policies and the reform of practices of solid waste management in Bangalore while tracing some of the complexities of these processes on the ground.

You also wrote a contribution with Christine Lutringer.

Our article, “Garbage is Good to Think With”, is an ethnographic study of the policymaking process of decentralised solid waste management in Bangalore since 2012. It maps the complex configuration of public and private actors (NGOs, local government, IT firms, courts, neighbourhood community leaders) that formed a heterogeneous “policy community’” working together to improve waste disposal and management. We analyse in particular the interplay between middle-class environmental activists and court interventions in the policymaking and implementation processes. We explore some specificities of middle-class activism in Bangalore, which was driven by an eclectic mix of economic interest and civic responsibility along with the desire to implement smart technological solutions.

Is there any aspect of the research findings that surprised you?

We had initially focused on domestic food consumption alone while analysing changes in shopping, cooking, eating patterns at the level of the household. But our field research led us to include restaurants into the study (an entire chapter is devoted to this in the issue) as we realised the growing importance of eating out for middle-class double-income families. To begin with, we had also not envisaged focusing on urban-rural linkages or on the marginalisation of the waste workers due to the privatisation of waste disposal by the city municipality, issues that came up during our ethnographic study. The interview with the activists in the issue reflects on their strategy to move beyond the usual NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) approach of “cleaning up” or beautifying middle-class urban neighbourhoods. In our conversations with them, we realised why changes in Bangalore were not only informed by a larger sense of civic and environmental responsibility for both the stigmatised workers dealing with waste in the formal and informal sectors, but also by an awareness that the surrounding rural areas affected by the city’s poor waste management must be part of the new policy solutions too. It was this particular framing of the city’s “garbage crisis” that led the judiciary to address larger environmental and social issues across the rural-urban as well as the formal-informal sector divide. An afterword by Carol Upadhya, an eminent social scientist living in Bangalore who raises larger questions on the sustainability of models of (urban) development, closes the special issue. We decided to invite her to reflect on these questions as we realised that the way our research project was framed, it did not allow us to address issues of political economy, which are fundamental to the transformations that we had studied.

Full citation of the special issue: Lutringer, Christine, and Shalini Randeria, eds. “Sustainable Food Consumption, Urban Waste Management and Civic Activism: Lessons from Bangalore/Bengaluru, India.” Special e-issue, International Development Policy/Revue internationale de politique de développement 8, no. 2 (2017). http://journals.openedition.org/poldev/2475.

Interview by Sucharita Sengupta, PhD student in Anthropology and Sociology