Tuesday, 11 November 2014

FOOTBALL AND ALL THAT TRASH



While the performance of FC Goa in the inaugural Indian Super League on the pitch is offering little cheer to its fans in Goa, off the pitch these fans seem to have won many hearts. Reference is made to the cleaning drive by a handful of young fans which began soon after FC Goa’s second home game against Atl├ętico de Kolkata and who posted pictures of their activities online. The post having gone viral on Facebook, the next home game against Delhi Dynamos saw a crowd of more than fifty joining in the efforts to clean the Fatorda stadium of the trash. While some linked it to the story of the efforts of Japanese fans cleaning up after the game during the World Cup in Brazil, and the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign recently launched, this ‘shot’ at cleaning received good press coverage in Goa as well as national and online portals.

Amongst many of the photos that were posted online, there is one that particularly caught my eye. This was a picture showing a large portion of the trash that was accumulated. Consisting largely of FC Goa banners and festoons, and soft drink cups, this picture gave a sense of how much trash was generated at Fatorda during the match against Delhi Dynamos. This image will be the basis on which I shall proceed in my reflections. While it is no doubt commendable and laudable that a handful of youngsters (like me) have taken leadership and indeed made others also join them in their efforts for cleanliness, the celebration  and reassurances that followed the drive tend to overlook crucial issues that are very much related to the issue of cleanliness and civic sense. This column would like to draw attention to some of these issues in the hope that a better understanding may be achieved.

What I would like to point out is that such an act of individual sacrifices, though useful in some ways, only goes to reassure us that something is being done to address a larger systemic problem. The issue of garbage is not simply about one person littering and hence the problem cannot be approached from a position of guilt: I litter therefore I am responsible for my trash and also that of others. The systemic problem that I refer to can best be represented by the picture that I discussed above. The question that needs to be asked generally of cleaning drives is where will all this trash go? It is by asking such a question that we can confront the obstinate problem of effective garbage management and disposal. The reassurances that such cleaning drives allow us to feel, now are exposed for the problems that they hold within them.

As with many of the cleanliness drives, including the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign, what missed the mark yet again were the people or workers who actually dispose our garbage. To their credit, the youngsters at Fatorda did try to empathize with the plight of the workers there, after they realized how backbreaking and thankless their job was. The stark reality is that these workers are ill-paid. Most likely the workers engaged in managing garbage are hired on contract basis which allows for the most vulgar flouting of labour laws. The worst form of such violations can be seen in the manner in which manual scavenging is allowed with impunity in India. Ill-paid and stigmatized due to the caste-based occupation, these workers sometimes pay a hefty price, either with their actual lives, or through life-long suffering from diseases such as TB. So while we applaud the persons who took it upon themselves to clean the stadium at Fatorda, the debate never goes any further to secure the rights of workers who actually have to deal with trash on a daily basis.

Apart from the game against Delhi Dynamos, the amount of trash also generated after the game against Atl├ętico de Kolkata was sizeable, “at least half a truck full of garbage” in the words of one of the members of this group. This brings me to the next issue of how the very things that we enjoy – largely driven by an excessively consumerist logic – itself is generating so much trash. Rather than thinking of ways to clean the trash that gets generated everyday (though it is also very important), one needs to also seriously think about how to reduce the very generation of this trash on a daily basis. Ultimately, no matter how much we clean our houses, our neighbourhoods, our streets, and our stadiums, there is absolutely no mechanism to deal with the accumulated trash except to dump it in a garbage dump to rot.

This should ideally raise the question of what types or kinds of actions taken in relation to the problem of garbage should reassure us as a society. To be honest, very little has been done.  The problem is that the debate in Goa hardly ever goes beyond demanding cleanliness either from the individual or the civic authorities, or blaming the defunct garbage disposal technology in various landfills in Goa. We fail to recognize that this systemic malaise has a variety of people involved it in, not confined to a middle-class, urban, and upper-caste demographic. If our society feels that an occasional, well-intentioned act of cleaning by people who are not engaged in the occupation of cleaning be celebrated, this is adding insult to injury to the millions who toil everyday without getting any recognition.

In trying to attempt something well-intentioned like cleaning the stadium at Fatorda, there is the fear that we might end up understanding the problem divorced from its specific context and realities. Rather than suggesting that some kind of high-end machinery be immediately set up to deal with the systemic failures of garbage management, we should first think about putting in place worker-friendly labour laws. Laws that are sensitive to issues of caste, gender, health care, insurance, and other benefits for people engaged in garbage disposal and management. Perhaps the good folks who lent a hand to the workers at Fatorda could also lend their voice to this.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 12 November, 2014)

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