On 15th November 1999, in a mega event organised at Bangalore’s premier hotel Windsor Manor privatisation of waste management in the metropolis was advocated. Then newly appointed Chief Minister Mr. S M Krishna endorsed the proposal and set it in motion. World Bank, which advocates privatisation of public services and co-sponsored the event, was clearly happy with the result.
In subsequent years, privatisation of waste services became epidemic across Bangalore. Thousands of Pourarkarmikas lost their jobs, or job security. Privatisation of waste management was promoted on the premise that the system would become more efficient there would be less corruption, and the residents of the city would be healthier. Instead, what resulted was extensive exploitation of labour, massive cartelisation of waste management services and corruption, and eventually a collapse of the system. In time, massive mountains of garbage were created in Mandur, Mavallipura and a dozen other places, causing chaos in the lives and livelihoods of those who lived near these landfills.
It required someone to call out Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s bluff. This responsibility fell on the shoulders of the predominantly Dalit communities of Mavallipura. They refused to allow hundreds of trucks rolling in to dump Bangalore’s garbage in their village forests and commons, resulting in extensive pollution of their water and soil. The damage to their health and that of their livestock was catastrophic. Building human walls against police brutality and BBMP muscling their way in, the villagers stopped the dumping. But the waste remained there and continued to contaminate.
A study done by ESG last year revealed, this toxic burden has caused 45 deaths in about 100 cases surveyed. A third of the deaths are from cancer, another third from renal failures and the remaining from cardio-vascular diseases, all indicative of toxic consequences of waste dumping. There is not a line in the BBMP’s budget about this situation and how it proposes to remedy it, this despite a 2013 order of the Karnataka High Court that all the waste there must be bio-mined and the place restored.
If we use waste management as an indicator of urban governance, and survey the period from 1999 to 2021, we find that the system worked far better before it was privatised. There were gaps, and there was corruption, and lack of care. But most certainly not to the extent we have witnessed in the past two decades. And there certainly was not the scale and intensity of egregious exploitation of labour that the decades of privatisation witnessed.
When we review the budget of BBMP 2021-22, we find Rs. 1600 crores have been allocated to solid waste management, about 16% of the total budget. But in the details we discover that tokenistic and marginal investment is made for the welfare of Pourakarmikas – about Rs. 50 crores is all. And there is that Rs. 200/Pourakarmika/month allocation so they can buy brooms and protective gear. This is quite in contradiction to labour laws that require the employer to protect the employee, and not shift the onus on the latter. The Budget also highlights a recent decision of the State Government, that of turning over obligatory waste management effort of BBMP to a corporation – with BBMP holding 51% of the stocks and the remaining by the State. The question is what happens to the workers, almost 30000 of them who keep our streets clean and our environment safe at grave risk to their lives?
In many ways, such treatment of Pourakarmikas is indicative of how BBMP perceives its role, and for some years now. This budget speaks of a Rs. 175 crores State Grant for the “Citizens Waterway Project”, essentially rehabilitation and beautification of K. R. Market to Koramangala storm water drain and Raja Kaluve on the lines of the Sabarmati WaterFront in Ahmedabad, a pet project of Chief Minister Yediyurappa. Not much about this mega project is shared in the public domain. The Sabarmati WaterFront is not such a great idea to emulate, as it came at heavy cost to the river (the waters were diverted from Narmada), and following brutal evictions. In contrast, the critical function of rehabilitating 840 kms of rajakaluves and lakes in the city seem to still rely on budgetary allocation made on the basis of Chief Minister’s Nava Nagorothna Grants in 2018, and those from other statutory agencies. So it is difficult to assess where the money is flowing from into lake rehabilitation.
As the budget was being read out, a decision was also being formulated about a school in Chamrajpet – to shut down Model High School,the first Kannada medium school, for lack of students. Late thespian Vishnuvardhan and India’s leading cricketer G R Vishwanath are alumni of this school. But the irony is that in the capital city of Karnataka, a Kannada medium school could not be sustained by BBMP. Is this because in a Rs. 10000 crores budget, education finds a meager allotment of Rs. 88 crores?
It is no better in the health sector. The allotment for health is over Rs. 300 crores, much of which goes to tackling the COVID pandemic. There does not seem to be any emphasis on building the primary health care system which is critical to tackling such pandemics, and which is now in doldrums because of systemic lack of attention and budgetary support.
From the Budget speech, the push for decentralisation and public involvement in conceiving projects and maintaining public assets, say parks, is welcome. The investment in maintaining Bangalore’s 1200 parks has more than doubled to Rs. 214 crores, compared with previous year’s allocation. 10 lakh saplings are to be raised, but there is no indication of budgetary allocation and a plan of really turning them into trees. Clearly, all such plans can be secured only if Ward Development Schemes developed democratically by Ward Committees are the basis, as is envisaged in the Constitution. Else, it may easily open doors for loot of public money.
Overall though, the budget is all about promoting mega projects. There is very little clarity about where the money will be raised to turn 191 kilometres of roads to national highway standards. Even as the question remains road building anyway has to be of a good standard as per the National Building Code. Rs. 1000 crores is budgeted for road maintenance works, when we do not have any documentation of the promised quality of earlier road works and if this actually was delivered. So questions remain if we are going to pour tar over the tar we poured last year and in the years before, and repaving pavements we had paved just a few seasons ago. As is well known, such are the methods that turned contractors into powerful political forces who now rule us.
This budget, prepared by senior bureaucrats, in the absence of an elected Council, only makes us want more transparency, accountability and deeply democratic governance of a city which has a population equivalent to those of several small nations.
First published in Nyayapatha, a Kannada weekly which is a sister concern of gaurilankeshnews.com