Environmental Equity and why it is relevant in the present garbage debate

Garbage is an issue that municipal corporations across the country have suddenly woken up to. State governments have realized the sheer political damage that an issue, which only some years ago was considered trivial, can cause. Some States have already faced the brunt of the present inequitable national garbage disposal policy. Karnataka and Kerala have witnessed local but violent uprisings against reckless dumping of garbage by urban bodies in neighboring agricultural villages.

Public health and sanitation have always been state issues[i] however by passing the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000 (“MSW Rules”) under the aegis of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 the central government was able to dictate how solid waste would be disposed and collected by states and their municipal corporations. the MSW Rules advocate for large-scale disposal of municipal waste. They impose such specifications for processing and disposal of waste that for the operation to be economically feasible it needs to be done on a large scale.

Growing property prices and lack of space in the city limits has pushed these centralized, highly polluting and many a times ill managed waste ‘facilities’ into the peri-urban and rural villages. There are other factors which also play a deciding role. The Not in My Backyard sentiment of the city dwellers and the Not in My Term of Office resolution of the comparatively stronger public office holders of the cities has pushed the large-scale waste facilities into  non suspecting poor and minority neighborhoods and villages.

The disposal of garbage generated in cities in neighboring agricultural villages is only one of the many manifestations of environmental inequity that our country has failed to recognize and manage. ‘Equity’ essentially means fair and justifiable treatment for all. Environmental equity means developing, implementing and enforcing  policies and laws to make sure that no group  or community is made to bear a disproportionate share  of the harmful effects of pollution  or environmental hazards  because it lacks economic or political clout.

Clearly therefore the present garbage issue as much as it demands a scientific and social resolution, it also throws light on the  environmental inequity or injustice that we have allowed to fester in our country. To dump on a community the burdens of modernity and consumerism fruits of which they have never tasted is morally and ethically wrong.

To attain absolute equity in any matter let alone environmental equity is impossible. However what is possible is to work towards a more equitable society in all respects. The constitutional mandate that the founders and people of our nation have laid out for us is clear. To ensure equitable distribution of natural resources. A necessary corollary to this is to ensure the equitable distribution of the burdens of our consumerist and natural resources guzzling society.

                                                                    – by East Michigan Environmental Action Council

Ecological people

Humanity is dependent on the natural environment; not only for its most basic needs but for its existence. Level of dependence on the ‘local’ environment though varies among different communities. Urban or industrialised communities are less dependent for their material, cultural and spiritual needs on the local environment. Though, this is not true for the ecological people[ii]. Ecological people are those who depend on their immediate local natural environment for not just their material and economic needs but also draw their social and cultural capital from the ecology (Clark, 2007). In the Indian context the ecological people are the fisher folk of the coastal stretch, tribal communities or forest dwellers who are spread across the Indian sub-continent, the migrant and non-migrant graziers and the farming communities.

The farming and grazing communities based in peri-urban areas/villages of India who are currently facing the threat of depleting natural resources are also the victims of reckless dumping of garbage by  cities and other urban areas. It would be at this juncture important to understand the context and nature of a peri-urban area. ‘Peri-urban’ is a term which has come into use in the recent past to enable one to describe spaces— “between the city and the countryside—that are shaped by the urbanisation of former rural areas in the urban fringe, both in a qualitative (e.g. diffusion of urban lifestyle) and in a quantitative (e.g. new residential zones, and other land uses that are characteristic of these places) sense. Such spaces are characterised by location of facilities and entities which are generally required to sustain an urban area but are not desirable to be located inside the urban area itself and so are relegated to the fringes. Such areas usually host large potentially polluting and hazardous – manufacturing industries which drive the urban economy, waste facilities, landfills and lands which support competitive agriculture that is driven to satisfy to the needs of the urban region. These spaces are in many ways the ‘residue’ of the urban zones where the undesirable is dumped. Poor quality forest area and agricultural lands are becoming one of the key characteristics of these spaces.

 In India more than 70% of the population is dependent directly on land, forest, ground water, wetlands and other such natural resources for their livelihood and housing (Clark, 2007). Many of these communities and peoples in the recent times have found themselves in the dynamic peri-urban space. The culture, traditional and social lives of these communities are directly dependent and connected to the natural and local environment around them. But because of the changing land use that has been imposed in these areas by the planning authorities of urban areas and the resultant depleting natural resources these communities are being forced to depend more and more on the urban economy.

 As life, livelihoods, culture and society have been considered as basic requirements of human existence, in any way taking away or diminishing the same would amount to violation of the basic human rights of any person so affected. Protection and conservation therefore of the natural environment[iii] which is clearly closely linked with the life, livelihood and culture of the peoples, to the maximum extent possible is a basic human right and needs to be enforced more often than it is being. Violation of these rights including right to an adequate natural environment presents itself through a ‘loss of access to clean air and water; loss of access to productive land; loss of energy sources and biomass; loss of food and health security; social and economic marginalisation; and physical displacement’(Clark, 2007).

 Many have been forced to live in these conditions, to an extent that it has compromised their health and taken away their right to livelihood. This can be especially seen in peri-urban areas of major metropolitans of India. “Development” which promised to make lives better has in reality only helped to allow the powerful to appropriate the natural resources from the less powerful. This can be seen in how locally undesirable land uses (LULUs) and potentially polluting facilities are situated mostly in such areas. The burdens of the “developing” economy and the resulting ecological impacts are not shared equally by communities. Studies show how siting of LULUs and polluting facilities are done on the basis of “path of least resistance” and not on any scientific or technical considerations.

Indian peri-urban areas in the eighties and nineties became industrial hubs and dedicated spaces for manufacturing facilities became a regular feature of these spaces. This brought untold horrors to the nearby communities and villages. The manufacturing entities on most times did not follow sustainable and legal ways of disposing their waste and this had an adverse impact on the terrain and ecology of these areas. In the start of this century a new kind of horror had befallen these areas. These spaces had started to be used by the urban local bodies/municipalities for indiscriminately dumping of the waste generated in the urban areas or for siting landfills. This was a situation where state which was enshrined with the responsibility of ensuring that natural resources are not polluted was through its very policy polluting the natural resources. The state was also consciously promoting inequity, Environmental inequity.

The centralised large scale landfills and dumping facilities are products of the well intention-ed MSW Rules. The MSW Rules made municipal and urban local bodies responsible for ensuring collection and sanitary disposal of waste. This seemingly extra burden on the urban local bodies and an acceptance of privatisation of state activities made it possible for the municipal bodies or the urban local bodies to outsource the work of maintaining a waste facility to private contractors or entities.

This seemed like a good idea at first but in the case of many cities this has turned out to be a major money spinning scam where garbage is being dumped in public properties without being processed and the same is wreaking the natural complex ecosystems of these areas. The impact that this has had on the villagers and communities dependent on their ecosystem is immeasurable.

Mandur and Mavallipura (agricultural villages near Bangalore) have been victims of this tragedy. The environmental inequity that we are presently looking at is outrageous where we residents of cities consume and use resources the burdens of which is conveniently pushed to neighbouring villages. The present garbage issue clearly is nothing but a manifestation of a larger issue of environmental inequity/injustice.

End Notes

[i] Seventh Schedule, list II, entry 6, Constitution of India, 1950

[ii] A term coined by the ecologist Raymond Dasmann. The contrasting term is ‘biosphere people’, those who command resources from anywhere in the world, and are not dependent on local natural resources for their survival. Most dwellers in industrial countries, and urban dwellers in other countries, would be in this category.

[iii] Natural environment encompasses all living and non-living organisms naturally present in an area, in contrast to a built area. It is difficult to find an absolutely natural environment. Naturalness of an environment varies in a continuum, from ideally 100% natural in one extreme to 0% natural in the other. It has been found that in regard to farm lands, though the composition of the soil is same as that of a forest land the structure of the soil is different.

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  1. Great article. Scientifically written and thought provoking. And one of the most pressing concerns in todays India.

  2. A very thought provoking article. Ecology cannot be bartered with economy. Truly there is an need for an comprehensive waste management policy which can eliminate waste in an manner safe to the environment.

      1. Well Said, the developed metros should own the complete responsibility of managing the waste which they have generated, and it clearly shows the failure of the municipality which is not able to manage the issue, in the case of Bangalore BBMP.

  3. Great blog you’ve got here.. It’s hard to
    find high-quality writing like yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate individuals like you!

    Take care!!

  4. As life, livelihoods, culture and society have been considered as basic requirements of human existence, in any way taking away or diminishing the same would amount to violation of the basic human rights of any person so affected

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