When waste becomes your life for 3 weeks

So what were we doing here for the past 3 weeks? I realized that in the midst of all the experiences and impressions, we never wrote about what we were here for. One word should give you a hint – or maybe a few depending on where you come from – trash, garbage, rubbish, waste. Yep, we spent the past 3 weeks helping the city of Allahabad figure out how to improve solid waste management in the city. If you’ve ever been in India or have seen any pictures and documentaries – you know that trash is pretty much everywhere. It is a very sad view – let your mind go visual for a sec (and I will help with some pictures) and imagine this:

Busy streets covered in trash, with a few bins but mostly no bins – if they are there, they are either overflowing because there isn’t enough of them or are empty because it is easier to dump than walk a few meters. Trash all around it, organic or non. Cows, dogs, pigs eating all of it and whatever was actually in the bins is now spread out all over the place. Large spaces in the middle of the city covered with trash – basically unofficial landfills that serve as collection places. Rag pickers walking through it, trying to collect anything that can be sold (glass, bottles, plastic). Fires are frequent, mostly because the rag pickers start them to get rid off the non-valuables. Sometimes because of the chemical reaction in the tons of waste, the fires start on their own. Typical home sorting of trash does not happen. Businesses, restaurants, even our hotels, do not regularly install bins (I had to carry around my plastic bottle for 2 hours to finally find a bin). Processing of waste happens in one large plant (which we had a pleasure to visit) where some level of segregation of the wet (organic, food, plants) and inorganic happens. Then a few men physically go through the rest to take out the plastic (usually bare hands, no mask). Drains in the streets are open and usually blocked with trash or full of it. With the 90F/high 30C temperatures, it is hard to not to notice the smell. Houses with trash spread in front of them because if even one person dumps trash, it encourages others to do the same or it spreads around with animals, traffic. All of this has impact on everything else… animals eat plastic, the burning trash pollutes the air, kids play in trash filled areas, the unofficial landfills contaminate drinking water, the open drains and sewage overlap, insects – I think you get the picture.

Our challenge was to help the city of Allahabad to put in place a few frugal, pragmatic and sustainable actions to accelerate the city’s journey towards a smart city. Managing waste is one of the basic city services that every citizen expects, but only about 20% of the citizens are actually willing to pay for the services. Everyone recognizes that a mindset shift has to start with the public – Indians are very conscious of personal hygiene but social hygiene is an issue. Prime minister Modi has launched a few initiatives to focus on cleanliness and has gained some real traction. In fact, our last day in Allahabad, October 2nd was a holiday, celebrating Mahathma Gandhi’s birthday. It is also the day that the country focuses on Swachh Bharat – the national campaign for clean India- but it feels a bit too much top down and a government programme so far.

We spent the first week learning about the city, the process, visiting the plants, talking to people. Not just the officials, but the citizens as well. The stories varied quite a bit so our primary challenge was in sorting through all the said and unsaid with very limited data available. I think we particularly enjoyed talking to the people that really live it everyday – the street sweepers, the residents in the gym, the hotel employees, Richa’s friends – this after all is on everyone’s mind because you can’t escape it if you wanted to. Our second week was spent formulating some emerging hypotheses – and we had many! And week 3 was crunch time in our hotel room #410 – our office – working on the high level presentation to formulate our recommendations and heads down writing the report. We did not forget to have fun though … no worries there. Shopping, tailoring, exploring all the hotel restaurants, even one super local one (where the plates were made of recyclable leaves (surprising dichotomy between the creativity in how to use recyclables and what you see on the street), some Indian mendhi and lots of Indian food (even though I think we are ready for some fresh seafood, vegetables, salad and fruit).

Our work is done for now, cameras full of trash pictures, memories full of laughter and funny stories, stomachs full of tikkas and aloo ghobis, hearts full of Indian hospitality – and everyone of us richer with a few new friends worldwide. For this team, it was special & special, at times 100% no problem, a few dry days here and there and definitely lots of glowing with the Indian flow 🙂

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

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