Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Garbage as a metaphor

Sixteen-year-old Ramachandra Dikshitar finishes his morning rituals early. Bathing is a waste, considering he will be neck-deep in garbage within the hour. But as a practising brahmin, sandhya vandanam -- the thrice daily prayer to the gods at dawn, noon and dusk -- is a part of his life. Ram, his mother and brother all work as ragpickers in the city’s garbage dump. They live in a traditional agraharam -- a cluster of brahmin households -- built around a Shiva temple. All of this is now surrounded by the garbage dump. This is one of many garbage dumps that have come up near the agraharams of indigent brahmins across the country. As recently as a decade ago, the local Shiva temple used to attract numerous pilgrims. The livelihood of the brahmin families in the agraharam was, in one way or another, associated with the temple. Now, with the expanding garbage dump, visits to the temple by pilgrims have dwindled, pushing the agraharam families into near destitution. Like many of the country’s less fortunate, Ram’s family and many other brahmins too saw the silver lining in the project imposed on his community and sought to earn a livelihood in ragpicking.

If the above story were true, or even conceivable, we could agree with the many who claim that modern-day discrimination is based solely on economic terms, not on caste or communal lines. But Dikshitar is fiction, as is his garbage-dump agraharam and the band of brahmin scavengers.

The real story goes like this.

A solid door with auspicious tantric motifs guards a ramshackle hut that is falling apart at the roof and on all sides. There is nothing firsthand about this house. A piece of corrugated asbestos gone soft with age covers a portion of the roof. Wooden boards, some tarpaulin, mismatched pieces of bamboo, and plastic wires as lashings complete the picture. Every last item that went into the making of Kamatchi Devi’s house was locally mined, hand-picked by her from the garbage dump within which the house is located. Barely five metres in front of her house runs a stream carrying a foul-smelling reddish-orange liquid -- juice from the rotting mountains of garbage stretched out on all sides of her house. Across the juice river is a ramshackle temple to the God of Wars, Murugan.

No matter which way the wind blows, Kamatchi’s house is assailed by toxic smoke from north Chennai’s perennially smouldering dump. The Kodungaiyur garbage dump, which receives more than 2,000 tonnes of Chennai’s daily garbage generation of 5,000 tonnes, is the largest in the city.

Kamatchi’s house is one of 15 dalit households in the cynically named Panakkara Nagar (Rich Man’s Nagar). Local reports say about 7,000 people make a full or partial living by extracting, sorting, processing and trading in resources relegated to the dump by the city’s consumers. At least half of them are engaged in sifting through and sorting the garbage in the dump -- glass, plastic, coconut shells, metals of different kinds, gunny sacks. A smelly sewer -- the Captain Cotton canal -- choked with plastic trash defines the western edge of the dump yard. All along this canal and a few streets on either side are flimsy hutments of thatch, tin, tarpaulin and any salvageable building material… MGR Nagar, Ezhil Nagar, RR Nagar. Around 6,000 households live with insecure tenure along the margins of the stinking canal. Another 1,500 households live in similarly squalid conditions in Raja Rathinam Nagar across the main road from the dump.

RR Nagar was constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board to house the Chennai Corporation’s conservancy workers in the early-1990s, nearly a decade after the dump was inaugurated. There were no takers among the workers for the ‘dump-view’ apartments. Eventually, the brand new houses in the tenements were filled with families evicted from various parts of the city. Residents from the beggars’ colony in Chetpet, families ousted to make way for the Royapuram bridge, a few hundred Tamil refugee families from Sri Lanka were sent to the same place where Chennai sent its trash.

A major proportion of all these people -- the workers in the dump, the residents of Panakkara Nagar, MGR Nagar, Ezhil Nagar, RR Nagar, the conservancy workers for whom the government chose to build the ‘dump-view’ tenements, the oustees who eventually took up residence in the tenements -- belong to scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC/ST) communities.

The people here are too poor to have generated all the trash that surrounds them. Per capita garbage generation is a good measure of prosperity. Indeed, while the rest of the city’s trash is cleaned and brought here, the potholed mud lanes that pass for roads in this locality have never seen a municipality broom.

Is this a coincidence? Or is there an invisible quota for SC/STs and other backward communities in occupations that nobody wants for themselves -- say, as garbage and sewage workers, as contract labourers engaged in the most hazardous of industries, in chemical units as cleaners of effluent treatment plants and reactors, in construction and road-building, in granite quarries and sand mining, in leather tanneries and dyeing units.

It is a fact that, as a matter of practice, garbage dumps don’t come up near agraharams. It is also a fact that agraharams don’t come up near garbage dumps.

In 2003, within Howrah municipal limits, a shameful incident occurred that highlights the face of modern-day untouchability. On February 3, more than 500 armed police and bulldozers descended on a massive dalit settlement in Bellilious Park. Armed with a court order in a case for city beautification filed by a professedly ‘civil’ society organisation, the Howrah municipal body cleaned the park of nearly 7,000 residents -– all allegedly from the scheduled castes.

How did the dalits get to Bellilious Park? And where did they go when evicted?

According to a petition (1) circulated by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, the park was the place where night-soil headloaders, manual scavengers and conservancy workers were allowed to pitch camp more than 100 years ago because they were denied rented accommodation in the city on account of their low caste. Over the decades, many others similarly rejected by the growing metropolis of Kolkata found refuge in the park. Some even had title deeds to their holdings.

Many of those evicted that February morning from Bellilious Park ended up in makeshift tent camps in the Belgachia garbage dumping yard.

The Howrah incident is by no means an isolated one. In virtually every state of the country it is the poor, the dalits and the adivasis that have to move to make way for dumps, industries, roads, flyovers, bridges, dams, mines, parks…

Social exclusion is a theme that connects Kamatchi’s life and choices with those of the Howrah oustees who moved into the secure, though Hades-like, confines of the Belgachia dump. As American scholar Buvinic points out, social exclusion involves “the denial of equal access to opportunities imposed by certain groups in society upon others (2)”.

The lack of access often translates into acceptance by marginalised communities of undesirable land use. In Gangaikondan -- a scheduled caste-dominated village in southern Tamil Nadu, where Coca-Cola set up a controversial bottling plant in 2006 -- the predominantly dalit (Pallar community) hosts did not oppose the plant too vociferously although all of them shared concerns about the impact the plant would have on groundwater.

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Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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