A Day At The Landfill: Why We Need To Dump 'Jugaad' From Our Collective Psyche

23/09/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Yawar Nazir via Getty Images
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA - APRIL 29: Indian laborers sort through the heaps of waste at the city's lone landfill site on April 29, 2015 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. Kashmir has witnessed huge influx of poor migrant laborers from different parts of India over the past few decades. Living below poverty line and with little access to education or sanitary living conditions, whole families, including children, mostly from different Indian states collect scrap to make a living. These Indian laborers sort through heaps of waste at a landfill site in Srinagar, where an average 400 metric tonnes of solid waste is dumped on daily basis. Working at landfill sites can be hazardous and many of laborers do manual scavenging without basic precautionary equipment. Although the Indian economy has seen significant growth, there are still millions of people who survive on less than $1 (63 INR) a day. International Workers' Day, also known as Labour Day in some places is marked on May 1, 2015. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a solid waste management facility in Mumbai. For those of you wondering what a solid waste management facility is, you may be a little more familiar with the terms "garbage dump" or "landfill". At this point, the readers who have a keen sense of smell must be wondering, why, oh why, would I subject my olfactory system to what can only be described as a brutal assault? And you wouldn't be wrong to think so either! Within seconds of arriving I was greeted with the aroma of decomposing waste, some of which had been accumulating for months. Months!

"The idea of 'process management' is hardly a prevalent concept in the Indian collective psyche.... But 'jugaad' is very common."

Here is a play-by-play of the experience:

• There were no clear signs to find the site.

• The main entrance of the facility (which provides direct access to the administrative offices) was closed and entry had to be gained from the gate through which the waste collection trucks enter and exit.

• There was no security or identity check (although they knew I was coming).

• None of the security personnel were wearing any kind of face masks and they were out of stock when I asked for one before entering.

• There were stray dogs hanging out on the property (and even scavenging from the very large piles of waste).

• The equipment used for sorting the waste (to pull out plastic, for example) looked like it had never been maintained. In all fairness, I was there when that operation was on hold (not sure why since there was a lot of waste to go through) so I have no real sense of how effective or efficient it is.

• Did I mention the mountain of months-old waste? And the garbage littering the roads, in the corners, essentially everywhere?

• The waste was just sitting there, exposed to the elements, a veritable buffet for birds, stray dogs and every strain of disease known to mankind (okay, maybe not every strain).

• A lot of the waste appeared to be plastic. After segregation, the organic waste was being composted.

• None of the people working there were wearing face masks, although a few had hardhats on.

I'm sure I made other, very significant, observations (that would have resulted in environmental groups, labour organisations and enforcement agencies having collective cerebral aneurysms) at the time, but no longer remember them due to the short-term memory loss I experienced owing to my olfactory system being overloaded. To be sure that I hadn't accidentally picked the most poorly managed facility in India, I googled the phrase "landfills in India" and came across two articles, one published in The Times of India and the other in The Hindu, both in 2014. Both articles corroborated my experience and provide additional information on the hazards, risks, and lost opportunities associated with poor management of solid waste.

"No technology can fix poor habits, or the absence of effective ones. Only a conscious, planned, and committed collective effort can."

So am I beating a dead horse? (To be clear, I did not see any dead horses there!)

My point is this. The idea of "process management" is hardly a prevalent concept in the Indian collective psyche. India is a place where only 2% of the population qualifies as skilled, according to the Economic Survey of 2014-2015. But "jugaad" is very common. For readers not familiar with the concept of jugaad, it quite literally means "winging it" to arrive at a desired outcome, at any cost.

I am not here to criticise or extol the notion of jugaad. But I can say with certainty that effective and efficient management of any system is impossible through it. In the absence of the design and implementation of well thought out protocols, systems break down. They simply don't function. Effective process management requires the creation of a clear plan or strategy, identification of key system parameters (metrics), the accurate measurement and monitoring of these parameters, the execution of the plan and verification of outcomes (by continuous monitoring of identified parameters), and tweaking the system until the highest level of efficiency is achieved. Many of you may be familiar with this concept, commonly referred to as the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

There is so much talk of Smart Cities in this country and how they could revolutionise the way of living here. I am not picking on Smart Cities - it's an ambitious vision. But I am simply not convinced that technology is the fix to an issue that pertains to the prevalent cultural mindset. No technology can fix poor habits, or the absence of effective ones. Only a conscious, planned, and committed collective effort can.

As I drove away from that landfill, my mind couldn't help but drift back to the cacophony of aromas I had just experienced - probably because it followed me home in my clothing. And I couldn't help but think that if a process-based mindset is not adopted and institutionalised in organisations, public and private, soon, there will be one more decaying ingredient buried in that landfill - the hopes and dreams of a sustainable future.

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