The End of an Era in Cleanliness

Shuddham Door-to-Door Watse Collectors

Shuddham, the remarkable volunteer-run NGO doing solid waste management in the heart of Pondicherry’s French Colonial district, has ceased operations, effective 1 January 2011. After eight years of going door-to-door, teaching households and businesses the importance of segregating waste streams into compostables and recyclables at the source – and slowly building compliance to an astonishing 80% among households – Shuddham has fallen victim to the incessant corruption of local officials and the negligence and callous indifference with which the government performs its obligations to the public.

First, the corruption. One year ago, in a decision that was taken with the utmost secrecy, the local administration division of the Puducherry government awarded an enormous contract for solid waste management for the whole of Pondicherry to Kivar Environ, a Bangalore company with absolutely no experience whatsoever in garbage collection, recycling, or any related endeavor. The contract, which runs 19 more years, represents an annual expenditure of more than four times what the government is currently spending on waste management. Given the difficulties Shuddham has faced over the years getting approvals for even minimal necessary additional capital expenditures and increased labor, this vast budget would appear to be a welcome shift of priorities. It is not. It simply represents a staggering level of kick-backs to government decision-makers and implementers. This is hardly news in Pondicherry – or anywhere else in India, for that matter – where publicly funded projects are determined by the lucre of the graft rather than any measure of social utility.

Eventually Shuddham would be replaced, by Kivar – operating in a “public-private partnership” with the government, the only practical effect of which is to externalize and subsidize many of the costs of operations by, for example, providing the contractor with scores of valuable properties to use for equipment storage, local transfer stations, offices, and other things. But when news of the contract became public in late-December, Kivar was nowhere close to being ready to commence operations. “We have a three-phase plan,” Kivar’s head of operations in Pondicherry told me. I asked of what those phases consisted. “I cannot tell you,” he replied, as though it were some official state secret. When will you be ready to start work in the French Town? “I am not permitted to say.” What are your objectives for this contract? What specific things do you hope to achieve? “Clean and green Pondicherry,” he replied as if by rote. That is a tired, old slogan; I don’t want to know your slogans; tell us specifically what you hope to achieve and how you plan to accomplish it. “Clean and green Pondicherry only.”

The thing that pushed Shuddham into its New Year’s termination in the face of inevitable, but not immediate replacement was something I’ve written about previously: the chronic failure of the Pondicherry government to pay Shuddham for its work. By year’s end, the government was more than four months in arrears in its payments – not just to Shuddham, but to many other contractors as well. The problem is always more acute with Shuddham since, unlike the for-profit contractors, it does not pay bribes to local officials to expedite the payment on its contract. It is also far less tenable.

Shuddham is the only waste contractor in Pondicherry who, when its contract goes unpaid by the government for months at a time, continues to pay its workers. Other contractors tell their workers, We have not been paid – what can we do? The women who sweep the streets and collect the trash are then forced to borrow from their village money lenders at exorbitant rates of interest, just to meet their basic needs. While the failure of the contractors to support their workers is shameful, more shameful still is the conduct of the government, whose cavalier attitude toward payment places an enormous burden on those least responsible for the situation, least empowered to do anything about it, and least able to afford it. By contrast, Shuddham members have taken loans for tens of lakhs of rupees to ensure that it’s workers were paid without interruption.

At times in past years, arrears on Shuddham’s contract has reached as much as nine months, sometimes resulting from budgeting failures of the local administration, sometimes because some official or other simply refused to believe that Shuddham would not pay kick-backs and was convinced that, if they simply withheld payment for a little longer, Shuddham would acquiesce. In every instance, this was a miscalculation; but Shuddham bore the burden of the corrupt miscalculation.

By the close of December, the situation was once again intolerable. This time, Shuddham took the decision to cease operations. Here is the letter Shuddham sent to the Chairperson and Commissioner of the Pondicherry Municipality:

31 December 2010

Chairperson Smt. B. Sridevi
Commissioner K.T. Azhalagiri
Pondicherry Municipality

RE: Suspension of Work

Dear Madame and Sir:

After months of working conscientiously without payment from the government on our contracts, Shuddham regrets to inform you that we are forced to suspend all street sweeping and trash collection activities in the Raj Bhavan ward, effective immediately. We simply cannot afford to provide further services without the government meeting its financial obligations.

The injustice of our situation is well-known to all concerned and has been the subject of innumerable meetings and correspondence. Our grievances include:

1. Although we have a work order extending through March of 2011, the sanction orders for two of our contracts (for 24 hours of cleaning of the Beach Road and 8 hours of daily sweeping, collection, and processing) expired and have not been renewed since September 2010. We are therefore unable to submit invoices or receive payments.

2. We have not been given sanction orders for our night sweeping contract since February 2010.

3. Agreed allotments on unpaid tractor loads, incurred between March 2010 and August 2010, remain unpaid.

The previous Commissioner expressly confirmed these obligations, in person and in writing. Promises of immediate payment have been made repeatedly. Still, no sanction orders have been issued.

The municipality has enjoyed a special relationship with Shuddham for eight years. We have worked as an all-volunteer NGO – not a for-profit contractor – to keep the streets of the Raj Bhavan spotless and create a model of integrated waste management that has been the sole source of recycling excellence in all of Pondicherry. Unlike other municipal contractors, when the
government fails to pay Shuddham, our members have always borrowed funds to ensure that our workers received their payments. This is a burden we cannot continue to carry.

We are ready and willing to resume our street cleaning and trash collection work – but we are simply not able to do so until the sanction orders have been issued and back payments have been received. We regret that the failure of the government to meet its obligations to us will create hardship for the households, businesses, and institutions we serve; but the matter is not
within our control.

Very truly yours,

Bhupi Maru

One week on, Shuddham’s work stoppage is having profound effects in the business sections and public areas throughout the Raj Bhavan Ward. But one heartening sign that Shuddham’s eight years of work were not in vain, is the fact that the neighborhood streets remain remarkably spotless. As one resident told me, “After years of feeling we were making a difference by segregating our wastage for recycling and composting, how can we now go back to simply throwing it onto the streets?”

For eight years, the volunteers and staff of Shuddham represented the single bright-spot in Pondicherry’s otherwise careless and corrupt approach to solid waste management. The new big-money strategy takes government corruption to new levels of excellence. We are hopeful that the expenditures might also result in zero-waste systems continuing to be implemented in the Raj Bhavan and that these more sustainable practices might be introduced in the areas of the city where Shuddham was not previously operating.

Hopeful, but not optimistic.


6 Responses to “The End of an Era in Cleanliness”

  1. 1 mbjesq 21 January 2011 at 6:36 am

    We have learned that a lawsuit has been filed in the high court, alleging that the Government of Pondicherry violated its own Terms of Reference in awarding the municipal waste contract to Kivar. The ToR required a contractor that had a minimum of three years experience in solid waste management. Kivar has none.


  2. 2 Donna 27 January 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Here’s hoping the lawsuit is successful!

  3. 3 music ardor 29 January 2011 at 7:45 pm

    We have not been given sanction orders for our night sweeping contract since February 2010.?

  4. 4 smita 9 February 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Don’t be such a downer, Mark! This is India Shining.

    Just consider the entrepreneurial audacity of a company like Kivar deciding to seek and win a 20-year contract without knowing the first thing about garbage collection, waste management, or recycling.

    And those intrepid politicians put everything (and everyone) on the line in their quest for self-enrichment because the shine would dim without all those glittery people, their palaces, and their over-the-top celebrations.

    Besides can we really blame them for taking what is so freely given?


  5. 5 Bernard Badilla 12 February 2011 at 6:23 pm

    I hoping for a better world.

  6. 6 Moulee 14 February 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I read about this scam in a small time local news paper in Pondy. It is sad that the corruption in Pondy is not noticed by any mainstream media. I totally lost hope in Pondy Govt.

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