Trash Diggers

Sankar Ray

The Trash Diggers
by Dhrubajyoti Ghosh
Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Price : Rs. 999

The 47-page book almost half of which is of on-spot photographs, is an essential primer for those who want to know about, renew their knowledge of or engage in deeper debate on solid urban waste management, a challenge to genuine and resident-friendly urban planners in converting the waste into wealth with sound ecological enrichment. There is no denying that "Economic sustainability is best secured by the creation of local or regional self-reliant, community economies", as aptly stated by James Winpenny of Wychood Economic Consulting Ltd., UK and Ingo Heinz of Technische UniversitatSt Dortmund, Germany, and Sasha Koo-Oshima, FAO's Land and Water Division in their book, ‘The wealth of waste : The economics of wastewater use in agriculture’. The author's total focus on centuries old successful endeavour in self-reliant commodity economies in the now-globally known East Calcutta management which today confronts and prescribes a challenge to the increasingly humanimalised commoditisation in the era of globalisation.

Dr Ghosh notes poignantly on these communities create a 'new indicator of the progress of civility' but quips with a biting innuendo that the criterion of a civilised country is the 'amount of waste it has to throw away'. He makes no bones of his unflinching solidarity and camaraderie with innumerable 'wretched of the earth'. His words are like poisoned arrows at the privileged on the other side of the abominable divide—"Kolkata has waste pickers all over. We do not count them. We count the number of millionaires but not the millions of pickers who are active in our nation's backyards. Pickers constitute the front line of an amazing global army of conservation professionals sans glory, sans reconnaissance officille." Pity is that the National Sample Survey Organisation continues to neglect the teeming thousands of ecological warriors. It is high time to demand that NSSO—preferably with the Indian Statistical Institute—includes the subsector in constructing an estimate of waste pickers with regional break-ups. This reviewer is against a census count as it is statistically inferior to sample survey. Once such an estimate is available, civil society may remind the government of an imperative to caress those socio-ecologically important people. The NGOs have a role in raising this issue. "Learning the genesis of urban trash recycling, recycling, re-examining the whole ecosystem of community-based trash management" is, the author stresses, essential when 'rent-seekers and jet-set consultants' are out to dislodge and destroy their socially-beneficial livelihood which is sacrosanct according to Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Mind you those invaders nurture who belong to the sub-class, defined by Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, cultural critic and Leninist Slavoj Zizek, as 'salaried bourgeoisie'.

Needless to state, waste -to-wealth is a process of transformation by "moving waste from a platform of exhausted utility to valuable and desirable level". Therefore, it is a challenge of not simply waste management only, but that of creating awareness about the imperative to explore opportunities inherent in waste market for environmental and economic benefits also. This task should be shared by opinion-writers and there is no harm if they do so with constructively critical way. There is no point in assuming that the waste-pickers or trash-diggers cannot err. They must know through dialogues with those who have expressed solidarity with them how to learn from their mistakes. And they do so continuously. Scientists with the mindset of an activist like Dr Ghosh—albeit belonging to endangered species seem taking a leading role here. But there is a rider. They learn from the trash-diggers too, apparently illiterate but disseminating a new literacy of natural waste management even among high-breed academics the world over. Here the reviewer slightly disagrees with the author who laments that the unique dedication of waste-pickers of Dhapa in the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in collection of 'recyclable and reusable goods' that help 'the city sustain environmentally and economically' is not the whole truth. There is a perceptible rise in consciousness, thanks to protracted endeavour of persons like the author himself as also a formidable section of the media. 'The realisation that a strong 'low-carbon utilisation' is a slap on the face of more-than-intellectually-fascistic city planners whose perception is, this book points out, that the pace of civilisation is measured by the quantity of waste generation. The author rightly banters the average Kolkattans who look down upon woman waste-pickers who are not nocturnal : 'the signature of our civility'. He tells the readers importantly that the 'zabbaleen system in Cairo city 'is among the oldest example of how waste management can become an income-generating option'. Zabbaleen is an Egyptian Arabian word, meaning 'garbage people'.

Small wonder, the per capita yearly generation of garbage by the Americans is 102 tons, Dr Ghosh states—a reflex of social atrocity. This is, however, no concern for the high propensity of careerism-crazy youths (plus the vacuous pride of their parents and their elitist ambition) for green card in the USA, no matter who is on the top—Barrack Obama or Donald Trump.

Tiny but expressive chapters like Returning from Work, Plastics, Solid Waste Recycling and Dhapa Agricultural Tenancy are eloquent. His words on about the dump site—'methane inflamed here and there that splits the darkness and yet adds to the mystique'—are poetically pensive.

But the choice of 'trash diggers' may be globally attractive but not as appealing as 'waste pickers' as 'trash' is etymologically an insulting way of referring to a person or people lack respect in terms of social relationship. Nonetheless, the book is a preferable possession.

Vol. 50, No.6, Aug 13 - 19, 2017