As India's Economy Grows, So Does Its Garbage ; Even High-Tech Industry Creates Mountains of Waste with Nowhere to Go

By Harris, Gardiner | International Herald Tribune, October 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

As India's Economy Grows, So Does Its Garbage ; Even High-Tech Industry Creates Mountains of Waste with Nowhere to Go


Harris, Gardiner, International Herald Tribune


Bangalore, a city of eight million that has attracted international technology companies, has outgrown all of its landfills and is trying to find ways to dispose of its garbage without adding to its severe pollution.

The garbage trucks regularly line up for hours here outside Bangalore's last official landfill, their burdens putrefying in the afternoon sun. A stinking mountain of trash, the landfill has been poisoning local waters and sickening nearby villagers. Another landfill was in even worse shape before it was closed recently after violent protests.

Bangalore, the capital of the modern Indian economy and home to many of its high-technology workers, is drowning in its own waste. Last week, villagers blocked the roads leading to the landfill, in Mandur on the city's outskirts, even as many of the city's trash haulers went on strike, saying they had not been paid in months. Some neighborhoods have not had trash pickups for nearly three weeks, and vast mounds of garbage are scattered through what is known in India as the Garden City.

Trash is India's plague. It chokes rivers, scars meadows, contaminates streets and nurtures a vast and dangerous ecosystem of rats, mosquitoes, stray dogs, monkeys and pigs. Perhaps even more than the fitful electricity and chaotic traffic, the ubiquitous garbage demonstrates the incompetence of Indian governance and the dark side of the country's rapid economic growth. Greater wealth has spawned more garbage, and the managers of the country's pell-mell development have been unable to handle the load, even in the cities Indians prize the most and look to as their models for the future.

"Bangalore used to be India's cleanest city," said Amiya Kumar Sahu, president of the National Solid Waste Association of India. "Now, it is the filthiest."

Bangalore's garbage crisis grew directly out of its stunning success. Technology companies started settling in Bangalore in the 1980s. As they grew, many created pristine campuses hacked out of urban chaos, supplying their own electricity, water, transportation and a rare sense of tranquillity.

But the dirty secret of those campuses and the gated enclaves where the companies' executives built mansions is that they had nowhere to put their trash. Many hired truckers to take the mess out of the city, careful not to ask where it went. The truckers found empty lots or willing farmers and simply dumped their loads.

The city soon followed the companies' lead. Its door-to-door trash pickup program, started in 2000, was seen as a model in a country where comprehensive municipal trash systems are still rare. But few -- including city officials -- knew where the trash was taken or, after landfills opened, how it was disposed of.

"We never followed scientific landfill practices," Rajneesh Goel, Bangalore's chief civil servant, said in an interview.

As Bangalore's population exploded with the success of its technology industry, the stresses in the waste system built nearly to their breaking point. Now, with the last landfill in Mandur, on the city's outskirts, to close permanently in January and the city running out of abandoned quarries to which it can divert a day's load, that system may collapse.

"All that groundwater contamination is going to come to us; more than 300 of our lakes are already gone," Dr. Goel said at a public meeting. "The problem is getting out of hand, and eventually it will swallow us up."

The choice facing Dr. Goel is stark: find a new place to dump 4,000 tons of garbage a day, or make that garbage somehow disappear. …

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