MYSURU, India — What lessons can a onetime potter’s colony offer on cleaning up a city in a country struggling with garbage disposal? Quite a lot, as I found on a recent visit to the outskirts of this city in southern India.
Mysuru, famed for the magnificent mansions of its erstwhile kings, or maharajas, is also known as India’s “cleanest city.” For two consecutive years, Mysuru has topped the Ministry of Urban Development’s national ranking of city administrations on solid-waste management, toilet construction, sanitation strategy, public outreach and other measures.
In July, Mysuru was one of three cities to win the Clean City Award given by India’s leading environmental NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment. The announcement called the award-winners places “with municipal waste management systems that actually work.”
How Mysuru accomplished this in a country where most city dwellers are inured to the sight of trash is a fascinating story going back decades. The city sets an example for all of India at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing a campaign, known as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for India to clean up its cities and villages.
Urban India is drowning in garbage. According to one estimate, India’s urban population of 377 million generates an estimated 62 million tons per year of what experts call “municipal solid waste.”
The problem is not just the trash you see on the streets and alleys in both posh and poor neighborhoods. It is also the insufficient processing of trash that is collected.
The Government of India has pushed for improvements before. In 2000, it implemented a set of rules for handling municipal solid waste, based on the recommendations of a committee appointed by country’s Supreme Court.
The rules recommend the use of different technologies by municipal bodies to reduce the damaging environmental and health impacts of so much rubbish left lying in the streets. But for most cities, integrating more systematic waste disposal in landfills with strategies for waste recycling and reuse remains a huge challenge.
This is where Mysuru sets an inspiring example. Residents have been trained to segregate “wet” organic waste from dry waste, and to use different colored bins for each. Community workers employed by the Mysuru Municipal Corporation, known as pourakarmikas, pick up the materials and take them by truck and by pushcart to plants around the city. In those plants, more workers sort out materials that can be sold to scrap dealers.
It’s a decentralized model that leans some on municipal resources, some on civil society, and a lot on cooperation from residents and businesses. And it’s working. Not only are Mysuru’s streets generally free of litter but nearly all of the waste gets recycled.
A visit to the city’s Kumbarakoppal ward is a useful starting point in understanding how this city remains so enviably clean. The ward, home to a waste-sorting site called a “zero waste management unit,” sells 95 percent of its garbage. Just 5 percent goes into landfills.
Kumbarakoppal means “the potters' colony”. Long ago, most residents in this area were potters. Today, the ward offers valuable lessons on how to re-imagine trash. The waste management plant is run by a local NGO, the Federation of Mysuru City Corporation Wards Parliament. Every imaginable bit of trash comes here: footwear, milk cartons, beer bottles, plastic, used deodorants. They are neatly segregated into 35 categories, labelled, and sold to scrap merchants who sell it to recyclers and industries that can reuse the material. Nothing goes to waste — not even bottle caps. Organic waste is sold to farmers for use as fertilizer.
Set up in 2012, Kumbarakoppal was the first zero-waste management unit in Mysuru. Today, the city has nine such centers that can handle trash from nearly half of Mysruru’s 65 wards. Another 47 scattered smaller centers handle only dry waste.
Dooda Thimmaiah Madegowda is president of the Federation and knows the area well. As a local politician, Madegowda has been instrumental in making solid-waste management a political issue. “We are not dealing with waste,“ he says. “We are dealing with people. You have to win the confidence of the people in your ward to implement anything. I even engaged with the religious community — got them to do proper waste collection in temples.”
He points to the city’s legacy. Mysuru was fortunate to have enlightened rulers, the Wodeyars, a dynasty that ruled the Kingdom of Mysore from the 14th century until India’s independence from Britain in 1947. The Wodeyars not only built magnificent palaces but also put in place a good underground drainage system, and laid the foundation for sound urban planning. “That Mysuru is the cleanest city in India today and is known for managing its solid waste so well has roots in history.”
Mysuru got India’s first urban planning body, the City Improvement Trust Board, in 1903; street lights were provided in 1908; underground drainage was introduced in 1910. Successive local governments in post-independence India have continued the tradition of urban reform and citizen engagement.
Getting people to make a habit of segregating waste took years of sustained effort. “Awareness programs do not always lead to change,” says Madegowda. “So I took the second step — adopting a ward. This meant mobilizing the resident’s welfare associations, getting a community representative for each street, rechristening municipal cleaners as ‘friends of the city,’ making sure two such workers were appointed for the ward.”
Bharathi Mariappa, a housewife who lives near the Kumbarakoppal waste plant, credits the Federation with making her aware of the importance of segregating waste. In addition, a women’s community group called Stree Shakti was very involved in the outreach.
“Women volunteers of Stree Shakti introduced us to the idea of segregation,” she says. “It was difficult at the start. It meant extra work. But they were persistent. My 15-year old daughter is much more aware of segregation than I was at her age.”
“Six years ago, most householders were reluctant to segregate wet and dry waste,” says a Stree Shakti volunteer named Lakshmi. "They said it would mean lots of extra work. But we went door to door, trying to convince them why they should do so. We distributed pamphlets. We also cautioned them about penalties. Anyone who does not follow the rule is fined. I feel happy that I have been part of the story of change that we are seeing today and that Mysuru is the cleanest city in India.”
At another zero-waste plant in Mysuru, run by a women’s’ self-help group, I met Jyoti Manjunath. The young woman is one of the group’s founding members. The plant started in 2013. The members of the self-help group were trained by an NGO in zero-waste management. Today, proceeds from the sale of waste is divided among the group members. The earnings also go toward an emergency fund that members can tap into. Manjunath says the money has been used by women to pay admission fees for their school-going children and other contingencies.
Point of pride
C G Betsurmath, who until recently led the local government as Commissioner of the Mysuru City Corporation, says Mysuru became India's cleanest city because it practiced the “4 Rs”: reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse — those who collect trash from homes won't collect it unless it is segregated.
This has helped the city to monetize the waste it generates. The Corporation also runs a compost plant in partnership with a private company; the Corporation gets a royalty payment from the company that operates the plant, Betsurmath says.
Betsurmath is proud of what he and his predecessors have achieved. Mysuru has 100 percent door-to-door collection of trash; 80 percent is segregated before being processed; 98 percent of Mysuru’s network of drains are covered and the drains are regularly cleaned and maintained by the Corporation. Every house in Mysuru has a toilet and the toilets have water connections, so Mysuru is nearly free of open defecation. (By contrast, a recent study found that 52 percent of rural Indians and 7.5 percent of urban dwellers defecate in the open.)
Much of this was in place before Modi’s Swachh Bharat program, but that campaign and the clean-city contests have helped galvanize the local authorities, strengthen existing initiatives and put in place additional measures. Plans have been drawn up for two new compost plants. In addition, 425 toilets were identified for repairs and funds were sanctioned to do the work; plans are being drawn up to construct even more public toilets in commercial centers.
“We have a team of health inspectors, drain inspectors, environmental engineers,” says Dr. D G Nagaraj, the Municipal Corporation’s health officer. “Each sweeper is allotted his or her specific cleaning tasks. Some do sweeping, some door-to-door collection, some deal with complaints and grievances. Health inspectors and supervisors do random visits. Every morning, attendance of corporation employees as well as contractual workers is checked. Anyone found wanting has penalties deducted from their salary.”
“It is not just technology,” says Betsurmath. “It is also one-to-one conversations. We had digital displays of messages on segregation, keeping the city clean, about Mysuru being the cleanest city and so on. We worked a lot on advocacy.”
The pride that residents of Mysuru feel in their city being ranked as the cleanest in the country is quite evident. I heard from the many individuals and institutions who pitched in to make it so. One local NGO, H V Rajiv Sneha Balaga, teamed up with various education institutions and students and has been conducting cleanliness drives at public places every Sunday, says Sharath Kashyap, a volunteer. The campaign completed its 100th week on July 24 this year. The occasion was marked by honoring the role of the pourakarmikas who pick up the trash.
Social media also plays a role in Mysuru’s efforts. About two years ago, a Clean Mysuru group got started on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp; there’s now more than 300 members. Shyam Sundar Subbarao, an active member of the group, says it's a tool to hold officials accountable. “It helps us to draw the attention of elected representatives towards our problems,” Subbarao says. “Residents can simply click a photo of garbage lying around in their vicinity and upload it on the WhatsApp group. This acts as pressure and often leads to corrective action by municipal officials to attend to the problem immediately.”
In some ways, Mysuru is an outlier for India. With just under 1 million residents, it’s not one of the country’s largest cities. And thanks to its heritage, the city draws 3 million tourists a year to infuse its economy.
Still, the city offers a lesson to cities in India and elsewhere: Citizen engagement can not only create a cleaner city but build community pride in the city as well. Promotional adverts for Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign typically show images of politicians and celebrities sweeping the streets with a broom. Mysuru demonstrates that to be a city known for its cleanliness, you have to do a lot more.
This story originally appeared on Citiscope.