How about your backyard?

The problem of waste is not north-south, but between the powerful and powerless everywhere.

Summers at home in India pass in a precarious time warp. I can fax, chat on the net or make a cell-phone call abroad but when I walk over to my nephew's house, only a mile and a half away in a rural campus, my journey has a Victorian arduousness to it. I have to pick my way gingerly through the dusty path cutting across the field, alert for dozing vipers, lantana thorns, cantankerous goats tethered to the bushes, and random puddings of animal and human excreta. At first, it is a mystery where these come from because the villages are a good bit away. But distance does not dim the force of NIMBY (not in my backyard) which until recent years has been the motto of Indian civic life.

And so houses are walled and gated here without apology. Our wall, solid grey and concrete, was supposed to have been a formidable seven-and-a half feet, but it sank to six after it was built. Still it's not enough. A neighbour's son shins up a tree on their side, leans over, and plucks the mangos on our side. Every so often, cricket balls, clods of earth, stones, and other less identifiable flying objects land on the lawn that my parents weed and cut every week with missionary zeal. Across from our house on an empty piece of land, someone's garbage shows up with mysterious regularity no matter how often we clear the space. Waste water from the gutters spills over onto the streets every time it rains. Little ones and sometimes not so little ones wander off into the fields to relieve themselves with innocent nonchalance. But the houses from which they saunter out, though they encroach on the streets far beyond the prescribed limits, are themselves immaculately clean, the earth in front swept, washed, and decorated with ritual white-powder kolams (patterns and designs). NIMBY.

Cultural factors underlie problems exacerbated by over-population and poverty. The cities of an early Indian civilization in the Indus river valley had complex sewer systems and some of the oldest extant toilets that date back 4,500 years.  But over time, Hindu religious teachings forbidding defecation near dwelling places as polluting to one's caste made the cleaning of "night-soil" (a Southasian euphemism) the work of "untouchables".

Until Exnora came here, my parents, retired medical professors, were fighting a losing battle with community sanitation unable to get neighbours to cover open ditches or to dispose of their garbage on their own property. An acronym for Excellent Novel and Radical, Exnora is the brainchild of MB Nirmal, a bank official turned civic activist who founded it in 1989 to clean up Madras, capital of the southern state, Tamil Nadu, and the fourth largest metropolis of India, which was disintegrating under massive problems of pollution and sanitation. Now, my father tells me, the Exnora man comes by on his cycle every week to collect the garbage sorted out before-hand into recyclables and wet waste which they compost to provide cheap high-quality manure used, among other things, to reforest the denuded pre-Cambrian hills that ring the campus. The municipality has talked of greening for years, but only Exnora, an NGO, had actually taken steps.

Almost a third of India lives in the city, and about half of the population in the major cities is concentrated in slums. Lack of sanitation accounts for 80 percent of Indian health problems from polio, of which half the world's reported cases occur in India, to diarrhoea which kills half a million children annually, that is, as many children who have died from sanctions in Iraq in a decade.

In Madras, a study by Exnora shows that a crucial reason for the unsanitary conditions in the city is that over 267 million litres per day of sewerage is discharged into the city´s waterways because of malfunctioning sewage pumping-stations and treatment plants. According to experts, sewerage-connected toilets remain out of the reach of the majority of Indians primarily because the sewerage system needs not only a sufficient quantity of running water, but also a regular supply of water for waste disposal, the cost of which at the rate of USD 150 a unit would be USD 500 billion. As of now, there are no sewerage and sanitation services for more than half the population living in cities. Toilets are not available to about a third of urban residents and proper waste collection services have yet to reach almost three quarters of the population in Madras.

This means that the problem of waste must be central to the issue of sanitation. Exnora's goal of "zero waste" is based on its philosophy of waste as a type of "wealth" to be managed rather than eliminated. "Zero waste" programs separate garbage when it is collected into recyclables, hazardous waste, and wet waste (the largest component). Wet waste is taken to special sites (only 20 by 40 feet per 500 families) where it is compacted and turned in 40 days into dry manure by the introduction of earthworms. Vermiculture is odourless, bio-friendly, and inexpensive and it is only one of Exnora's grass roots operations which also include citizen monitoring of polluted waterways, tree planting, and community education.

From a local initiative, the NGO, now a member of the environmental group GAIA, has grown into hundreds of 'civic exnoras' affiliated with an 'international exnora' and has been cited as one of several hundred 'best community practices in the world' by the United Nations. Its example has been followed in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong and its approach to tackling pollution is in line with the most progressive in the West where for some years incinerators, especially medical incinerators, have been regarded as the source of pollutants like cancer-generating dioxins and have been closed down, held to higher standards, or in Europe replaced by autoclaves and microwaves.

The global garbage business however has its own form of NIMBY both at home and abroad. In the UK, the group Communities Against Toxics was outraged when after six years of spreading highly contaminated ash from its incinerators around Newcastle, at the end of a law suit Byker Combines Heat and Power Plant was only penalised with a small fine. In New South Wales, Vivendi, a French multinational notorious for its corporate practices, was implicated in creating the "big pong" of 1997 (the stink that spread over Adelaide from the Bolivar sewage treatment plant). Defying the so-called "rationality" of the market, Vivendi-owned companies are responsible for providing filtered water from the very same dams and water tables next to which Viviendi subsidiary Collex dumps waste. Paid by the ton, Collex has little incentive to recycle and thus reduce its output. These instances indicate that although activists often treat the export of waste as a north-south issue, it is more accurately an issue of the powerful and powerless whether at home or abroad.

Still, developing nations do bear the brunt of global NIMBY. Batteries, PVC plastics, genetically modified foods, multilayer packaging, obsolete weapons, and even ships are sent overseas to poor countries to be broken down and recycled in horrendous conditions. Obsolete technology that has been discarded in the West tries surreptitiously to resuscitate itself in a climate that is environmentally less rigorous. In the 1970s, trash was dumped in Africa with the help of local middlemen until an international outcry stopped the trade. More recently, electronic wastes from phones and computers are being sent to India, Pakistan and China, where they are disposed off in highly dangerous conditions. At least 30,000 tons of scrap from the World Trade Center wreckage has been exported from the United States to Sabari Exim Pvt Ltd. in Madras raising concerns in Greenpeace, India, and other NGOs. Still, the Basel convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal (adopted in Basel, Switzerland on 22 March 1989) which has in effect banned hazardous exports from the developed nations has so far not been signed by the United States.

Inefficiencies of scale
There is, however, one crucial difference between corporate and peasant NIMBY. My parents can always retreat behind that gray wall and enjoy sanity and sanitation no matter what happens outside. But there is no private sphere into which a community can retreat once corporations enter the picture. Far from being conservative in culture, multinationals are inherently radical, disrupting, dislocating, and creating new inefficiencies of scale, while, turning semantics on its head, the so-called 'radical' organisations like Greenpeace and Gaia try to 'conserve' local resources and local networks. This is no 'free market' – the MNC's come armed with the big guns of national and international (IMF and World Bank) subsidies. The NGO's, truly private entrepreneurs who are actually filling consumer needs, operate on a shoe-string.

In Madras, for instance, the Exnoras have become the latest victim of the MNC's. Again, it is Vivendi and a subsidiary, Onyx, who are repeating their Australian rob-Peter-to-pay Paul act, dumping right next to the most important water table in the city from which they are simultaneously drawing water. Again, paid by the ton, Onyx has no incentive to recycle, with the result that Exnora's carefully built up system of separation at the source as well as its crucial public education effort has been undermined. Onyx in fact had been guilty of disrupting local recycling in Egypt in 2001. When it signed its seven-year contract, Onyx was supposed to be bringing in the latest technology. And those who were happy to see the garbage off their streets but not especially concerned with where it went after that pronounced themselves satisfied. However it was soon apparent to everyone that the whole operation, involving the transport of unsegregated waste in uncovered trucks, was medieval.

The story gets worse. Madras generates 1400 tons of waste per day which like 80 percent of Indian garbage, is organic, moist, of a low calorific value, and best handled by compacting not burning, as even Onyx has conceded, as high-cost waste-to-energy technologies that involve burning are not only inefficient and costly but extremely hazardous. Incinerators release chlorinated organic compounds and large quantities of carbon-dioxide which is one of the major contributors to temperature rises that have plagued south India for the past few years. Acid gases from combustion and elements in the garbage interact with oxygen or hydrogen leading to acid rain, metal corrosion, and the erosion of buildings. High temperature burning of chlorinated substances creates potent furans and dioxins that even in low doses produce an enormous variety of adverse effects in humans and animals. An international symposium on dioxides in Seoul in 2001, revealed the highest levels of dioxin related substances in the breast milk of women living close to the Perengudi site where Onyx was dumping and studies of nearby families showed a higher incidence of early death, asthma and skin rashes. The displacement of the Exnoras by MNCs was one of innumerable cases presented at Hyderabad, India, at the Asian Social Forum (ASF) in January 2003.

Strange that it should be the so-called left which is demanding local solutions, decentralisation and downward devolution while soi-disant free traders endorse corporations whose economically nonsensical diktats and sprawling, incoherent operations would have put the Politburo to shame. Vivendi and the other MNCs are not private businesses in any Smithian sense at all. Cartelised and subsidised they are impervious to the market and feed off the public trough through bids that are not genuinely competitive and contracts skewered by kickbacks, overlaps, PR campaigns, and conflicts of interests. The costs of their operation – transportation, public health, education, administration, policing — and the dangerous bio hazards produced by it are all borne by the public or 'socialised'. But the profits are 'privatised' and siphoned off from the public domain. The Exnoras are no match for the combined weight of the state and such behemoth cartels. As for the public, which public is it – the masses, the middle class, or the elites? The voices in the business press demanding more globalisation, the activist green groups demanding less, antiquarians nostalgic for rural India or the modernists fast forwarding to a technological nirvana?

The fate of the Exnoras should be a warning to market fundamentalists that those who miss the reality of  what is taking place in the Global New World Order by fixating on the classical meaning of labels such as 'private', 'free' or 'market' are liable to become as  obsolete as the cumbersome, dangerous technology of the global sewerage system.

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Himal Southasian