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Need to redefine community participation

By Pinky Chandran

Bengaluru has always enjoyed a high middle class action, expression and engagement in many civic issues;  solid waste management being a prominent one. And this is not a recent occurrence. One of the earliest initiatives can be traced back to the early nineties, when residents of Kalyan Nagar became one of the first few localities to take charge of managing their waste independently until 2020.

Fast forward to 2008-09. Socio-economically privileged local neighbourhoods and apartment communities got together to implement decentralised waste management in their spaces, gradually increasing peer pressure, for others to follow suit in the rising eco-conscious bandwagon. This was possible given their civic literacy, ability to network and articulate their position to their neighbourhood, bureaucrats, government and mainstream media, along with the use of digital media.

A heap of garbage lying at Veerabhadra Nagar off Outer Ring Road in Bengaluru on on May 14, 2022. (Source: K. MURALI KUMAR)

Two events in 2012 galvanised community engagement and action. First, when the landfill impacted communities in Mavallipura. Backed by a local NGO, local communities demanded the closure of the site, a move that was later ordered by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. And second, when citizens’ groups and NGOs impleaded in the Kavita Shankar v/s State of Karnataka PIL. These two helped the existing waste management practices to gradually and with much reluctance move from centralisation to decentralisation.

The third massive community coming together took place during Karnataka Plastic Ban implementation in 2016, when citizens groups in neighbourhoods, inspired by Yelahanka and HSR Layout, were activated. A mass movement was built in high income neighbourhoods, who had a way with engaging with the elected representatives and the officials. This was the rise of elite middle class activism and this was further bolstered in the form of a citizen participation programme that envisaged a network of engaged citizens advocating for change and participating in monitoring activities.

At the other level, some NGOs have successfully managed to mobilise communities, such as landfill impacted communities, informal waste workers and waste pickers’ communities, to speak up, raise issues and organise themselves. However, there are communities that still need to be able to participate meaningfully in the city’s solid waste management processes. The case in point being the municipal workers — pourakarmikas or street vendors, who are still to be engaged in the decision making on SWM issues. 

That apart, we also need to relook at redefining community participation to enable low-income communities and neighbourhoods to contribute and facilitate changes within their localities. I emphasise on context-specific expression, in this case of ‘geographical communities’  as before I sat to write this piece, I walked from Sudhama Nagar to Audugodi and then to Neelasandra, Ejipura and Vannarpet along the K-100 Citizen’s Water Way project, for my research on storm-water drains and garbage.

The question that came to haunt me was how do we look at a vibrant neighbourhood when there is continued apathy in service delivery options in some of these localities? How do we recognise the contribution of citizens who play a pivotal role through their livelihood practices and the terminologies of their residences in the name of ‘slums’, or ‘lower income neighbourhoods?

Most working-class communities go to work at 5 a.m. and to be able to service these communities, there needs to be extensive consultation to arrive at a solution.  If the slum board creates housing, without earmarking spaces for waste management within the complex, how can these communities hold them accountable? How do you engage with existing leaders in these areas, not as problem makers, but as experts in their localities, just as the middle class engage in SWM issues. How do we break down rigid administrative structures, for instance ward committees for community members to engage in constructive dialogues, without feeling powerless or fearful or manipulated? And this in turn will result in SWM practices being truly grounded and successful, given that there is no one size fits all solution.

(Pinky Chandran is an independent researcher and journalist; and tracks policy and legal developments on issues related to waste management)

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