STEPS-JNU SYMPOSIUM: Turning urban sustainability on its head

Waste pickers Delhi_Shishir Basant_Flickr CC

By Ian Scoones, Co-Director, STEPS Centre

At the STEPS-JNU Symposium on ‘Exploring Pathways to Sustainability’ organised with the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the first session explored the contexts and consequences of rapid urban growth in India through some in-depth case studies on urban waste management and agriculture. Rapid economic growth and growing inequality have created a growing informality, where hidden interactions, innovative activity and complex dynamics unfold. As Fiona Marshall from the STEPS Centre explained, this is a context that is poorly understood, and beyond the reach of formal institutions and policy.

Yet informality is central to economy and society in India. As panel discussant Kaveri Gill from Think Tank Initiative, International Development Research Centre, New Delhi, pointed out the ‘stylised fact’ that the informal sector disappears through development is a myth. As she argued: “This is not a transition. The informal sector is here to stay”, and that 80-90% of the economy of India really needs to be taken seriously. Yet most urban planning and policy efforts are focused on attempting to plan, control and regularise such activities – sometimes through state controls, at other times through liberalisation and handing over to the private sector.

The questions posed were: What is sustainability in this context? Should responses involve drawing such areas into the formal system or should such informality be built on? Among stakeholders the STEPS-JNU team had been engaging with there were clearly very diverse visions and pathways for development. Fiona Marshall urged the “recasting of the urban sustainability agenda, turning it on its head”.

Debates about the future of cities come together, she argued, in certain places: on the urban fringe, in peri-urban spaces – and around particular issues, notably those that cross-cut sectoral concerns, funding flows and policy domains, including issues of environmental health. The team’s research has pointed to what they term ‘flows of risk and opportunity’. Environmental and health issues are displaced from richer to poorer groups and from urban centres to peri-urban areas, yet the impacts often return in unseen and unexpected ways. Thus waste disposal is transferred to the urban fringe in massive landfill sites, yet the pollutants affect milk or vegetables produced in the same areas, imported to feed richer urban dwellers. These are hidden interactions around which there is little formal policy knowledge, and ones that are often invisible as they are carried on outside regulated frameworks, always informal and sometimes illegal. These flows are deeply affected by politics: of space and place, of class and social differences.

This is revealed perhaps most starkly in the case of solid waste management, a massive challenge in growing cities like Delhi. Pritpal Randhawa and Pravin Kushawaha from CSSP at JNU explained how certain powerful political and economic interests had constructed a particular pathway centred on the commericalisation of waste management and linking it energy production, especially through the construction of waste to energy plants. These are constructed as clean, efficient and environmentally sound. Yet these solutions exclude others, not least those who make their livelihoods from waste. Without recognition and official sanction wastepickers in Delhi are not seen as part of the solution. Ravi Agarwal of Toxics Link explained how in Delhi practices of recycling are barely mentioned and municipal authorities control waste management. The parallel informal system is almost completely overlooked. Dharmendra, a representative of wastepickers in Delhi, demanded access to waste in door to door collection, and explained how they are experimenting with collaborating with private sector operators.

As we heard in discussion, innovations in other Indian cities have begun to challenge this pattern, recognising the informal sector in the municipal response, as well as taking recycling seriously. As Chetan Vaidya from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, pointed out this went to the heart of urban governance challenges, particularly in the context of moves to decentralisation. In Bangalore change was brought about by a crisis, and the mobilisation of diverse actors that challenged the city authorities through the courts. This story is covered in a STEPS film – Bangalore: From Garden City to Garbage City -produced last year and supported by UKIERI.

Pathways to sustainability are thus generated by challenging structural power and interests – whether waste-to-energy investors, municipal authority laws or urban planning schemes – or by generating new discursive frames, bringing in knowledges and experiences of others outside the mainstream formal system. In discussion, Brian Wynne emphasised the importance of both dismantling and destruction of knowledge in creating new pathways, as well as building new knowledge through engagement with informal knowledges from those interstitial spaces outside the mainstream. As Lawrence Surendra, University of Mysore, argued, we need a new way of thinking about sustainability. “Things are happening on the ground, loops and exchanges are happening. Problems are being solved. Long before the formal institutions respond, before research can deliver”.