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Issue 32
, 2011
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21st century is all about sustainability

Swati Sahi
Source: OneWorld South Asia, Date: , 2011

On the occasion of World Earth Day, OneWorld speaks to Delhi based environmentalist Ravi Agarwal who effortlessly merges his cause for a cleaner and safer planet with his passion for photography art. Itís the time to rethink older models of growth, consumption and energy, he argues, for the sake of a sustainable world.

OneWorld: What are the key issues in waste management in India?†

Ravi Agarwal: When you tackle waste, you need different infrastructure for different waste streams Ė household, medical, electronic, and appropriate collection mechanisms.†

Currently we have a new law on plastic waste management that says for the first time that every municipality has to set up a plastic waste collection system. Things are happening but this doesn't†necessarily translate into infrastructure on the ground.†

Alongside is the question who is taking ownership of this waste collection? In many places, the municipality has been giving sub-contracts to the private operators to collect. But in other places where you have packaging and plastics and electronics Ė the companies who are the producers have been asked to set up the infrastructure because they see it as part of the extended responsibility of producers.

"You canít say we will have a clean city, and we will brush the poor and the waste aside at the same time"

Associated with this are appropriate technologies. If you burn a lot of waste there will be emissions, and if you start trapping the emissions, the technologies become really expensive. So there is this whole push between people who drive technology and what is appropriate technology.†

The associated challenge Ė a very big one in India Ė is that of livelihoods because millions of people support themselves off it, and these are among the urban poor, the poorest in the country. This obviously requires innovation on the ground, government desire and political will. In the policy statements or laws, there is not enough space made for the waste-pickers.

Contracts for waste collection are given to companies for door-to-door to the landfill. Door-to-door is where the waste-pickers come and collect the plastic and make an income by its sale. Now if you give a contract to the companies, it violates the livelihood rights of the waste-pickers. Private companies in cities like Delhi are not allowing the waste-pickers to collect waste anymore because they want to collect all the plastic, monopolise the waste.†

Basically you have to take the clean and green agenda as not only infrastructure but also where livelihoods issues are kept intact. India is a country where a lot of people are poor, and you canít just say we will have a clean city, and we are going to brush the poor aside and the waste aside at the same time.

OW: There is this concept of Ďzero wasteí. Is such a state possible?

RA: Zero waste is an aspiration and you have to take it in that spirit. It is possible if you say, I have to divert waste from landfills and not just dump it. If you take that as a mantra, construction malba can be crushed and used in roads, plastic can be recycled, tetrapacks or multilayered packaging can be made into boards, and wet waste can be made compost. So what is then left? If you segregate and have different waste streams going into different ways, so you can approach zero-waste closely.

Some colonies in Delhi have been collecting waste and composting them, and the plastic and metal are being taken away by the waste-pickers, so that not so much is left.†

The problem comes when you dump everything together and say I need one solution. This one-solution magic wand doesnít exist anywhere. And the moment you think of one solution, you think of unsustainable solutions.

OW: Why is source segregation still not happening despite laws in place?†

RA: Itís a misnomer that segregation doesnít happen. Maybe it doesnít happen at the household level but the waste-pickers do a very fine segregation. If you go to the waste landfill at Gazipur you will find almost nothing. Every single piece of plastic, even a nail is picked out.

Ideally segregation should happen at the household level. Itís a challenge because itís an extra bit that the consumer, the householder needs to do. And what the municipality is doing is taking all the segregated household waste, dumping it onto one truck. So people think why we should segregate if there is no channel beyond that.

Segregation makes sense if you have different ways of dealing with segregated waste. If you donít have those differences, then people will say this is a waste of my time. So itís a problem at the infrastructure level also, and the clash comes from the technology people also who say, donít segregate, we will deal with it. And the waste-pickers say this is not sustainable, I need that plastic.

OW: You run a campaign to phase out mercury in healthcare. What are the hazards involved with mercury? What is the alternative to mercury based hospital equipment?

RA: Mercury causes neurological damage in children, in pregnant women it can pass on from the mother to the child, and it can severely damage your brain growth. At a very high level exposure it will cripple you, like it happened in Japan, in the Minamata Bay disaster.†

Very small quantities of mercury Ė less than a gram of mercury Ė can pollute a whole lake and the fish will not be fit to eat anymore. Itís very toxic and metabolises into methylmercury which is the most toxic compound we know.

Because this danger is not recognized, mercury is so widely used in household items, in fluorescent lamps, thermometers, blood pressure instruments, batteries, electronics, even in the little Hindu prayer shiva lings. The problem arises when you get exposed to it.†

From our studies, we find hospitals can be breaking almost two thermometers per bed in a month. In the U.S. if a thermometer breaks in a ward, they will shut the ward and decontaminate it. But here we see mercury lying in corners in hospitals, under the desk; sometimes someone just swept it away or vacuumed it, which is worse. Because you donít see mercury vaporize at room temperature, it looks like a solid piece of thing but actually you are inhaling it at the same time.

For alternatives there are digital devices for measuring, or the anaerobic. Things are slowly changing and it requires training for the nurses, confidence of the doctors for one on one replacement.

"A United Nations treaty is happening to phase out mercury globally. I think in the next 15-20 years we should see no mercury in household use or hospital use"

Itís a campaign we are doing all over south Asia. We first make people aware of the dangers of mercury, by doing direct testing, air testing, or checking water quality in hospitals, to convince them of the problem. And then tell them these are the alternatives. Now the Indian government through its central health schemes has said that all government hospitals must slowly switch over to non-mercury.

One of the challenges in shifting over is the costs. Mercury thermometers are like 15 rupees, and digital thermometers can cost three times. But mercury thermometers get broken and digital thermometers can last you two years, so it is cheaper and also much safer.†

Thereís also a United Nations treaty happening to phase out mercury globally. And I think in the next 15-20 years we should see no mercury in household use or hospital use.†

OW: What does Toxics Link do to manage e-waste? What do you think about the import of e-waste from developed nations?†

RA: We started working on e-waste in 2003. Ours was the first report on e-waste in the country. Our first attempt was to make the issue known because electronics contain some of the most toxic elements or compounds. And the second thing is we must have a global, national conversation on this, and also come up with a policy. A new law is being drafted by the government and will hopefully be soon.

All major countries have new laws on e-waste since the electronics industry is among the fastest growing industries Ė the Indian industry is the fastest in the world growing at 26% annually and we are creating more than 4-5 million tonnes of waste.†

Simultaneously we work with the informal sector because livelihoods is a big issue for us Ė to train people on the hazards that they face. One area where they can do a safe job is collection, so that they are not part of the hazardous end of recycling which can only be done by high technology.

"The challenges of e-waste are more than just waste. It's also about the product design and the manufacturing process"

We now have a three state project with other partners such as GTZ where we are setting up collection systems. The whole thing is about looking at the livelihoods of people, taking out the hazards of their jobs, setting up infrastructure to deal with these hazards, and have companies participating and paying for all these. So this is the model we are moving towards and legally in the draft legislations, this is the model being proposed by the government.

But the challenges of e-waste are more than just waste. Electronics are already the future of everything we do. So now there is a conversation about the manufacturing process that donít use toxic chemicals but also how to design products differently so that cleaner materials are used.

Imports are a very big problem because even as collection has improved in the West, they donít have the capacity to recycle it, and so just dump it. Japan dumps it in China, and U.S. and Europe dump it in India, and they come legally or pseudo-legally, which means they come in as mixed metal scrap. And then they are auctioned here and get distributed.†

A person who collects electronics waste in California will have to spend money to recycle it. Instead he sells it to an Indian buyer and makes money. And the Indian buyer also resells. Some make a living off it. But ultimately all the toxics remain. Itís called cherry picking Ė they cherry pick the nice things and dump everything else. And we know some of the highest concentrations of lead in the landfills in US have come from electronics Ė over 40% of lead is from electronics.

We have been very vociferous saying you cannot allow imports Ė we already have so much waste generation here, why should we dump more? It is also imported in the special export promotion zone because these people get the waste in and then sell the material out but the toxics remain here. We have taken up all these with the government and have also put out public information and we will continue to press it till they stop.

OW: Considering Japanís ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, what are your views on Indiaís nuclear safety?

RA: The biggest disappointment has been our total denial of the scale of problem in India. We are providing markets for international nuclear companies but not seeing what our real requirements are here. In the name of energy sustainability we cannot throw all caution to the wind.†

Several countries have started reviewing their programmes, I think we need to independently review our nuclear programme. The problem is there is no information transparency; everything comes under the Official Secrets Act. There is no independent regulation of anything. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the Atomic Energy Commission are implementing through the BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) and the same people are monitoring it.†

Safety requires independent audits. When we are dealing with something as risky as nuclear power, no matter how safe the design, we need to have the best governance systems and the most transparency on the ground. We donít have that right now.

OW: Speaking of transparency, how do you see people using the RTI tool to create a safer environment for themselves?

RA: The RTI Act has been a boon to people. We have used it several times. The waste-pickers cooperative in Delhi used it to get the PPP agreement between the municipality and the companies which said how their rights are being violated. Now why should this be in a secret domain? These are public money being spent for public purposes. People have used it to get reports on pollution which state pollution boards donít give easily, on the level of contamination happening in an area.

I think not enough people are not using it in these kinds of ways; they are using it for many other things. But I hope slowly people would start using it for pollution related or impact related issues as well.

OW: Your latest photo exhibition focused on the ecological crises that result from development. A lot of your earlier works have also focused on the changing urban landscape and its impact on people and on your own self. As a photographer-activist, how would you say your work influences your cause and vice-versa?

RA: My photography or my activism speaks for the same ideas or questions that I have for my life. They are both different forms of expression. I think if 20th century was about technology innovations, 21st century is going to be about sustainability. We have to rethink many things. We have gone on a trajectory of a certain kind of growth, of consumption, of energy use, and right now we have to rethink everything.

The idea of stability is disappearing. You see the earthquake in Japan Ė a stable economy suddenly losing $400 billion, and the whole country being impacted. So where is the stable economy? Or the climate change discussions Ė even if we stop all emissions, the momentum will carry you right through a 2-3 degree rise in temperature.

"The key questions are how we think about ourselves on this planet and our relationship to it"

So there are fundamental questions of how we are going about and how we are thinking about ourselves on this planet, whatís the relationship to this planet. I am interested in exploring these questions because I think they are key questions.

In this country we have many ways of looking at this. In many other countries we have got fixed in a particular kind of paradigm about development, about progress, about technology that we have lost other ways of thinking.

Here we still have thoughts of Gandhi. Gandhi said self-responsibility is key to sustainability. I think this message is so omnipresent and so much more relevant today than ever before that we have to find ways of recovering them, and seeing how they can operate.†

In some ways they can institutionally operate, through democratically political systems with RTI, giving power to the individual, and also giving responsibility. So in a way, in a different way, Gandhi gets revived, through an institutional political mechanism. We have to find ways of bringing these ideas back into our thinking. And I am very interested in doing that through my non-activist work.

Ravi Agarwal is a Delhi based photographer and environmentalist whose work encompasses policy and grassroots issues of waste, recycling and chemical safety at the national and international level. He is a founder of environmental NGO Toxics Link, and head of Srishti, an environmental group.