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Waste management in India: can citizen initiatives make a difference?

Waste management in India. | Posted on 2023-06-13 15:51

Waste management is a major problem in many cities around the world, especially in several developing countries , including India. In Bengaluru (more commonly known as Bangalore), citizen collective 'The Ugly Indian' has taken up the issue and is cleaning up the city's streets and sidewalks.

In India, the intensity of the waste management problem is particularly evident, especially in large cities where the population is confronted with piles of garbage on sidewalks or on street corners. In question, the inhabitants who deposit their waste there, as well as the lack of personnel and resources of the collection systems .

These piles of garbage degrade and pollute the surroundings, a situation sometimes aggravated by the burning of the garbage . They also attract stray animals such as cows, rats and dogs; which sometimes leads to unpleasant encounters .

Over time, many government-run sanitation programs – like the Clean India campaign – have tried to improve sanitation infrastructure and raise public awareness of the importance of a clean environment. .

However, many of these initiatives have failed to achieve their objectives due to poor program implementation , inadequate monitoring, failure to ensure behavior change , and design flaws that do not address not the underlying issues, such as homelessness, poverty, mass urban migration and social inequality.

“The Ugly Indian”, a citizen clean-up initiative

Frustrated by the lack of results of government actions, some citizen groups have engaged in participatory solutions to try to solve this problem.

A study that I conducted presents such an initiative in the large city of Bengaluru. Driven by volunteers, who call themselves with a certain sense of self-mockery "TUI" (The Ugly Indian) , aims to remove and prevent litter from the streets and sidewalks of this Indian city.

An example of renovation carried out by the TUI collective. YouTube, The Ugly Indians.

To do this, the volunteers created events called “spot-fix” or “refurbished” to improve the appearance of the premises. Volunteers are recruited via social networks (including Facebook and Twitter). Most of them are not regular and only participate once or twice in the spot-fixes that take place near their homes.

Concretely, they pick up the garbage, clean the streets, paint the walls and sometimes even install potted plants. Immediately after the events, striking "before and after" photos are posted on social media. The places are then maintained by local volunteers, who ensure that the places are kept clean and that any further damage is avoided.

One-off spot-fixes are therefore only considered successful if they remain clean for at least 90 days . Comments on the Facebook page sometimes indicate that some cleaned places are deteriorating and some are particularly difficult to improve.

These discussions, however, indicate that most of these places remain clean. In 2018, it was thus estimated that 400 spot-fixes had been carried out in three years and that approximately 95% of them remained clean .

These spot-fixes are carried out in different localities of the municipal region of Bengaluru. The frequency can vary, with the group's Facebook page announcing an average of two or three events per week. Sometimes intensive campaigns can aim to achieve higher numbers over short periods of time.

Between autonomy and implicit norms

These events benefit from a very basic organization, and the participants are free to do what they want with very few constraints. A mixture of improvisation and upstream preparation, there is no central organization that manages these initiatives. These events are thus characterized by a sense of egalitarianism where hierarchy is largely absent.

Nevertheless, there are common standards, which guarantee the coordination of the action of the participants. For example, they often emphasize the slogan “Shut up, we have work to do”, so that people who engage in useless discussions are ignored in order to get back to work quickly.

There are also common motives between the places, which give a certain uniformity to the actions. For example, many spotlights feature colors like brick red and white. Another dominant color is blue. We can also observe the dominance of these colors and similar geometric patterns in the cleaned spots across the city.

An example of renovation carried out by the TUI collective. YouTube, The Ugly Indians.

These standards have evolved in many ways. First, many of the same participants come together for spot-fixes in different localities and cover similar elements. Then, social networks (which serve as the main communication platforms) present the work and results of previous events, which helps to guide the expectations of potential participants. Finally, tools and resources like brooms, brushes, paints, etc. are reused from one spot-fix to another.

Inclusiveness through anonymity

Participants also have an aversion to individual self-promotion as part of this effort. Although they encourage the media to highlight their work , allowing them to attract more participants and reach different parts of the city, they prefer to remain anonymous citizens .

The personal identity or the origin of the participants is not specified in the fixed spots. Similarly, membership in larger groups such as political parties or religious groups is not highlighted. This helps to make these events open to participation in an inclusive way.

Working in cooperation with other actors

In addition, the work is done without blame, in collaboration with existing systems . The municipal staff responsible for waste collection in the region are consulted in particular before the spot-fixes. They participate in the event and provide resources, including vehicles used for the removal of accumulated garbage. In this way, participants collaborate with the community and secure their support.

There is also collaboration with local organizations such as co-operative housing societies, businesses that have offices nearby, and armed forces bases that have residences nearby. However, advertising material from these organizations is not displayed on the event site.

Thanks to these different characteristics (open participation, egalitarianism, autonomy, implicit norms, anonymity and cooperation with other actors), the results are satisfactory, even with few means and in a short time. These point solutions, which have survived in Bengaluru for more than a decade, are inspiring similar efforts elsewhere in the country. This is why comments on social media describe TUI as a spreading 'idea', rather than an organization.

It is true that this solution does not address the problem of garbage treatment and does not solve the problem at the root. However, the differences visible on the street following the spot repairs have raised awareness about the cleanliness of public places.

This shows that community efforts with very few resources or with minimal structural organization can sometimes be effective, sustainable, and have a great impact.

Author :

- Professor in Management, IÉSEG School of Management


- The Conservation France

Posted on 2023-06-13 15:51

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