Thursday, May 3, 2012

The People who make Chandigarh Beautiful

What connects cities as diverse as Managua (Nicaragua), Nanjing (China) and Chandigarh (India)? In all these cities, garbage collectors have tried to fight against the corporatization of garbage collection process which takes away their livelihood.  In fact, from the last few days a protest by hundreds of garbage collectors and their families has been going on at the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation Office. They are protesting collectively under the banner of the ‘Door to Door Garbage Collection Society’ against the proposed system of the Municipal Corporation, Chandigarh, (“MC”) under which a private agency/contractor will be will be given a monopoly over garbage collection, the contravention of which will be punishable by a fine. This would mean that hundreds of garbage collectors and thousands of members of their families who depend on them, will be at the mercy of the private contractor who can choose to employ them or not. Some of them will be employed to work as a contractual employees with the private contractor, and will get a salary almost half of what they currently make working independently.
The print media, especially the English media has been very lukewarm in its enthusiasm to report the matter. Most news reports play down the unemployment that this scheme of the MC will cause. Rather they focus that on the inconvenience caused by the garbage collector’s protest to the city’s residents. None of the mainstream newspapers have really reported things as they are.
The pilot run of the private contractor led scheme in one of Chandigarh’s Sectors, wherein about 45 persons were getting employment previously, showed that the contractor gave employment to merely 6 employees. Rest of the 39 employees and their families were deprived of their livelihood as well as dignity. A group of garbage collectors I talked to at the protest told me that many of them had their children in schools and elderly parents needing medical attention and the meager income the private contractor will be giving them will put them in a drastic situation. Not just this, they said that since they will be working as contract employees, their future livelihood will be subject to the whims and fancies of their employer/contractor and they will have no security of tenure/   livelihood.
Their justified anger was palpable by what many others said. While one said that they had started the work of garbage collection through their own volition and had worked hard over twenty years to make it a source of sustained livelihood for themselves and their families. He also said that what is the guarantee that the private contractor will do the job as efficiently and effectively as they’ve been doing over decades. In any case the new system cannot match the present one in terms of convenience and flexibility. Another person said that once the garbage collectors have been thrown out of their work, nothing stops the contractor from getting automatic machines and leaving almost everyone jobless! But one statement goes to the heart of the matter- a protesting garbage collector said that they are the ones who have kept the houses and business establishments of the city’s rich, middle class and lower middle class residents clean and they are the ones because of whom Chandigarh is famously called City Beautiful This is so true and I believe that the people of Chandigarh (and of India in general) have no clue about the dangerous games the State is playing on their behalf. In fact, the MC’s scheme seems more of a “scheme to remove poor, than to remove the poverty”, in the words of another garbage collector. The situation seems so dire that one told me that he would rather lose a son than lose his livelihood.
It was amazing to see the sarcasm with which the protestors made fun of the unconcerned public and the irresponsible MC. One said that MC’s record of keeping the city clean is nothing to speak about and it should first set its own house in order.   Another took a dig saying that will those who stay in huge mansions and houses be ready to go out and hand over their garbage to the MC’s private contractor (as the proposed system envisages). Another said that these people go to America and then want the same systems (of garbage collection etc) here without realizing that the India’s realities need different kind of solutions.
The fact of the matter is that the two components of the MC’s scheme of segregating garbage as organic waste and any other waste and transporting it to the Garbage Processing Plant is something that the garbage collectors can do (as per their own admission) with some help from the administration and the MC. However, the MC’s willingness to do so seems suspect.
This seems to be a small, but oft repeated example of another blitzkrieg of neo-liberal agenda’s foot soldiers, crushing the lives and taking over the livelihoods of thousands. This must be stopped, as this goes against the fundamental right to practice a business, trade and profession under Article 19 of the Constitution. How can a complete ban on something as essential as garbage collection be considered a ‘reasonable’ restriction to carry out a trade and profession? We all need to ask ourselves that where will we be without the people who really make Chandigarh, or any city for that matter, beautiful and liveable? May be its high time you came out of your cocoon and talked to your local Municipal Councilor. Better still, go join the protestors!