Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dignity and Waste Management: Shifting perspective to accommodate the dignity of the human person

The perspective from which you view your problem substantially changes the solution to the problem. Every point of view, understands the problem differently, and presents a different solution to the problem. Take the case of garbage for example. Like most children from the Gulfie middle-class, my first encounter with what is now called waste-management began with the little symbols on the cover of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum. ‘Keep the countryside clean’ it read, with a stick figure throwing a paper wrapper into a large dust-bin. The appearance of cleanliness, or aesthetics was the perspective from which the issue of garbage or waste was then understood. Keep the countryside looking pretty, and we would be just fine, we were assured.

Clearly however the aesthetic approach to garbage did not resolve the issue. Such a perspective led to the issue of garbage being seen as one of waste-collection. The solution via this perspective on the problem was to put in place a centralized collection system. Once you ensure that everyone puts their waste into the bin, make sure it is collected from the various points in the city. Dumping our waste in dust-bins however, presented us with the formidable dilemma of land-fills. Landfills, as communities across Goa will assure you, create huge heaps of stinking refuse, that often combust spontaneously to fill the air with acrid cancerous smoke. In addition, the effluent generated leaches into the ground water, poisoning it and compromising sustainable access to potable water for generations. And because waste in landfills does not degrade, the amount of land required for landfills is limitless. One of the responses to the problem of landfills was to reduce the waste going into the dump. Realizing that one person’s waste is another’s resource, moves were made to segregate the bio-degradable food wastes, from the synthetic wastes like plastics, glass and metal. Such a resolution of the issue however presents its own issues. The sorting or segregation of waste is not necessarily done by the producer of this waste, since it is often argued that it can be achieved at the land-fill site itself, using chemical procedures to degrade the biological wastes.

What all of these resolutions have in common however, is the ubiquitous garbage collection truck, marked by the stink that comes with collecting mixed and rotten waste from households and commercial establishments.

The perceptive will have realized by now that an otherwise central figure is entirely absent from the descriptions of the garbage issue. That figure would be the figure of the human person. This absence is not surprising however, given that the problem has been framed in terms of ‘waste-management’, the human has been almost eliminated from the scene. They have no role in the equation except as producers of the waste. As such, they must only be educated to follow the appropriate procedure of either dumping waste in a bin (and not all over the countryside), or segregating the waste in appropriate bins. These actions end their role in the process. This is not a particularly comfortable location for the human being though, since this process in fact dehumanizes them, making them only cogs in a larger mechanical process.

Introducing the human element into the process of dealing with waste would radically alter the manner in which we view the problem of waste. It would also ensure a more effective way of dealing with the waste we generate. As suggested earlier, introducing the human element is not merely indicating the role that human beings have to play in the process. Introducing the human element would involve placing the dignity of the human being at the centre of our perspective and our resolution of an issue.

In the case of dealing with the waste we produce, a recognition of the dignity of the human person would involve a recognition that our actions of not segregating wastes, or providing rotting wastes to the sanitation worker is an affront to their dignity. In most of our municipalities, being forced behind the garbage truck is a nightmare. If forced behind it, we pull out our kerchiefs or hold our breath. Imagine now the condition of the person spending a good amount of his life within the truck, often time without gloves, or boots, or a mask to prevent him gagging on the smells? Invoking the dignity of the human person involves recognizing their right to a dignified working environment. This move takes us beyond the arguments for and against segregating waste at source. It is now no longer a matter of convenience or organizational success, it is a matter of our bounden obligation to another human being.

Invoking dignity ensures however that we move beyond uni-directional ‘giving’ of dignity, toward placing ourselves in a dialogical relationship with the object of our giving. Thus not only do we segregate waste at source, we also accept a situation where the sanitation worker instructs us in the ideal participation in the system. Such an experiment was conducted in some wards of Bangalore city some years ago, where municipality workers went from door to door of the ward, explained the workings of the system, and after a trial run, would refuse to clear garbage that wasn’t segregated. To the credit of Clinton Vaz and those involved in the waste segregation initiative, a similar principle was adopted in the Panjim Municipality. However, such initiatives also require the backing of the law. Where a citizen refuses to cooperate with the sanitation worker, not only must their waste not be cleared, but a suitable penalty imposed on them, one that can be levied through the municipality worker in that ward.

Invariably though we shirk from enforcing such systems. They stand to upset the existing social (and moral) order which is built on a failure to recognize the dignity of the individual. Placing the power to fine in a supervisor or a higher power, allows for interventions to protect the sensitivities of well-placed folk. Perhaps this is another reason why, despite loud cries for its implementation, the decentralization of governmental power to the panchayats and in particular the gram sabhas, has not been realized in our State and in others. The empowerment of the sanitation worker and the empowerment of the gram sabhas operate on similar principles of decentralization. The recognition of the principle of decentralization of power, must necessarily be accompanied by the social recognition of the principle of the dignity of the individual. The failure to do so would, in the words of a friend turn, our gram sabhas into garam sabhas!

To return to the issue of waste and our relationship to it; intervening from a position that recognizes the dignity of the individual promises to radically renew our waste management initiatives. It would highlight our moral burden to not push a member of our community (sanitation workers, rag pickers) into an undignified work environment, allow for a greater articulation of equality within our society, and allow for dialogical resolution of many more issues than merely the issue of waste.

In the end, perspectives and the words we use to understand an issue make all the difference!

(Published in the Gomantak Times 9 Sept 2009)

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