Waste to Wealth
Chair: Sanjeev Chopra
25. EL-6: Waste to Wealth
Venue: Savoy Writers Bar
Panelists: Ankur Bisen, Arkaja Singh
Chair: Sanjeev Chopra
Date: 21 November 2020
The session, ‘Waste to Wealth’ was a thought-provoking conversation between Ankur Bisen and Arkaja Singh, chaired by Dr. Sanjeev Chopra. Bisen’s Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change won the award for the Best Book in Non-Fiction category. Problematizing the issue of sanitation lies at the heart of the book.
Unlike other countries, India had never been able to achieve the sanitation standards. The system designed to deliver it were given the frameworks but not the adequate tools. Applying technology to sanitation and the process of revenue generation stands foremost in the ‘menu of solutions.’ Infrastructural responses should be modified according to the type of the waste. E-waste and apparel waste come under the category of resource recovery as they can be segregated and processed. Wet waste can be recycled into organic manure. Collection entity and disposal entity need to be carefully identified. According to Arkaja Singh, solid waste facilities can be ‘dignified’ if they are provided empowering conditions where solid waste is segregated at the starting point. Proactive enforcement, legislation and the formalisation of social contract will go a long way in achieving the sanitation standards.
On the question of the connection between ‘unclean occupation’ and caste oppression, Bisen argued that the communities associated with sanitation should be given the option of social mobility. However, they should try to use waste as a resource for self-empowerment. He illustrated this point with the example of the Marawi community and their rise to success in the textile industry. Singh expressed her discomfort with this essentialized analogy that assumes a level playing field for Marwaris and Dalits, despite the latter being pulled behind by an oppressive system of social stratification. Bisen highlighted the need to think about designing cities that will address the issue of invisibilized informal living. He noted that Dharavi is the elephant in the room that subverts the commonly held notions of formal and informal existences.
Bisen described the experience of writing the book for five and a half years as a lonely process of talking to oneself. It would have turned out to be stressful if it was not his ‘true calling.’ Singh identified the three steps to implement measurable changes for the sanitation issue as the transfer of power to those who actually deal with waste, updating infrastructural design and ensuring the accountability of the state as the factor that holds the narrative together. In Bisen’s opinion, the three steps for change are formulating specific targets for sanitation, empowering local bodies that engage in waste collection and disposal and the shifting of social contract to cleaning communities for their rights and representation. Dr. Chopra suggested that ‘waste’ must be a post-industrial phenomenon as equivalents for the term could not be found in ancient Indian languages. He concluded the session by emphasizing the need for more books like Wasted in the space of mainstream discourse.