Information Asymmetry in the Informal Waste Ecosystem


SELLING IN THE DARK


kabadiwalla connect

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 7)

As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.
– Benjamin Disraeli

LEARNING FROM THE EXPERIENCES OF THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR

What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.

Consider these statistics: according to a report published by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 2013, the average monthly income of an agricultural household is INR 6426. Dr Rahul Singh, from the Birla Institute of Management Technology, estimates that Indian rag-pickers earn anything between Rs. 45 to 80 in a day – an average of Rs. 1875 each month. In both sectors, however, the final product accrues much more value at the higher end of the supply chain, and is traded for much higher prices than what farmers and rag-pickers receive.

There are many reasons attributed to the unequal distribution of profits, especially at the lower end of the supply chain; one important factor is the unequal access to crucial information relating to the market.

In technical terms, this is referred to as ‘information asymmetry’ – a market economy which has ‘imperfect information’ between all the players. Information asymmetry can be defined as a situation where some party in a transaction benefits from having preferential access to information, leading to power imbalances in transactions.

Information asymmetry can exist across different industries and verticals. In India, it is particularly prevalent in the agriculture sector. A recent report describes the disconnect that exists between the industry’s multiple activities – including planning production, growing, harvesting, packing and transport, among others – which can lead to increased transaction costs, market friction and a situation in which particular stakeholders wield more power than others.

SELLING IN THE DARK | COMMONALITIES BETWEEN THE WASTE AND AGRICULTURAL MARKETS

In the agricultural sector, this asymmetry manifests itself in a variety of ways. In terms of structure, the industry comprises of farmers who produce crops, traders and middlemen who aggregate, wholesalers who bid for the produce aggregated by the traders, and eventually, consumers. Buying and selling of produce takes place at specified neighborhood markets, or ‘mandis’ and these are largely dominated by traders.

In general, farmers at the bottom of the supply chain are completely dependent on these traders to push their wares to consumers. They are particularly disadvantaged because of fewer opportunities of what is called ‘spatial arbitrage’; since they are not mobile, they cannot collect cumulative information on current prices and patterns of demand across different markets. This is an expensive operation that is far beyond their capability and as a result, they are unable to make decisions that would maximise their profits

This situation is clearly illustrated in the survey conducted by the NSSO. According to this data, farming households are relatively unaware of government procurement options for crops and crop insurance schemes. They are also far removed from new technologies and guidance from state-run research institutes.

On the other hand, large traders have the capacity to collect this information from different markets, which gives them better bargaining power over the farmers. It also gives them an understanding of how to hike the prices of produce, significantly increasing their mark-up. Besides this, large traders have the advantage of temporal arbitrage; that is, those who have the capital to store large quantities of produce for longer periods of time can also affect market prices in specific localities by doing so. The end result is fairly straightforward: while consumers pay competitive prices for produce, farmers receive only a fraction of the income.

Interestingly, Kabadiwalla Connect’s primary research has shown similar cases of information asymmetry in the waste space. Much like the structuring of the agricultural sector, the informal waste space includes a variety of buyers and sellers along a complicated chain. At the bottom-most level are mobile rag-pickers, who source waste manually from street dumps, landfills and homes. Waste is then passed on to itinerant buyers (who have the added benefit of a vehicle) and stationary scrap-dealers of varying capacities and scales. Finally, waste is routed to recyclers who upcycle it to a product of a much higher value.

THE INFORMAL WASTE ECOSYSTEM | LACK OF INFORMATION HITS THE BOTTOM OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN HARDER

Predictably, it’s the rag-pickers and itinerant buyers who are most disadvantaged because of the lack of information. While they source and salvage waste, they do not have the knowledge or ability to add value to it in any way. On the other hand, scrap-dealers (especially those at the higher end of the chain), are much better equipped to do so. They purchase waste at extraordinarily low prices from rag-pickers and then align their management process to better meet industry demands. As you travel up the waste chain, they sort waste into increasingly specialized categories and aggregate it to the extent that will make them maximum profit. They also know to transport waste to geographies where demand is highest.

The knowledge of these dynamics is what allows scrap-dealers and wholesalers to push up their revenue while simultaneously paying their suppliers a bare minimum. What results is that players at the base level of the supply chain are highly underpaid – in countries like Nicaragua for example, waste-pickers earn between $1.50 to $2 per day, while in Mexico, the average is around $7 a day. In his paper ‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’, Martin Medina writes about how waste-pickers in Colombian, Indian and Mexican cities receive only 5 percent of what the recycling industry eventually pays for waste they supply.

LEARNING FROM OUR PRIMARY RESEARCH

One of the scrap-dealers whom we interviewed is based in MMDA Colony. Most of his competitors work out of rented or makeshift locations and purchase several categories of waste in small quantities. However, he has utilized his financial capability and knowledge to build a more successful enterprise. He invested in a 2400 square foot yard to aggregate material, and chose to specialize in only one category: paper. Rather than source his material from several stakeholders, he worked out contracts with a few printing presses in the city. These presses not only produce vast amounts of waste paper, ensuring a steady supply, but also shred it before handing it over to him, cutting down on the processing procedures he has to implement in his yard. Once the paper is brought to his yard, his staff sort it into super-specialized categories and bale it to save space. The scrap paper is aggregated until it can be sold for the highest price. His monthly revenue is over INR 1,00,000 – several times what an average kabadiwalla would make.

On the other hand, another scrap-dealer whom we spoke to in Kotturpuram had a very different model. He deals with 13 categories of waste, running the gamut from plastic and paper to metals like copper and aluminium. His suppliers are varied and operate in an ad hoc manner, and he has no understanding of the volume game, neglecting to aggregate his waste before selling it. He makes less than INR 10,000 every month.

TECHNOLOGY INTERVENTIONS | OPPORTUNITIES AND CAVEATS

There have been various attempts at tackling the information asymmetry in the agricultural sector. An interesting model sought to make market information available on a mobile platform, since cellphones are easily accessible in rural parts of the country. However, there are a few factors that limit the efficiency of these systems. For instance, many farmers are unable to bear the cost of using an online or mobile platform, which means that the service has to be free in order to have a wide reach; but on the flipside, services that are not economically self-sustaining also tend to lose support in the long run. Moreover, these systems are not always created and implemented with a good enough understanding of the needs of the farmers.

There doesn’t seem to have been any highly successful technological interventions tackling information asymmetry in the waste space. However, governments that have lent support to informal waste networks by regularising their functioning have, to an extent, managed to facilitate the free flow of information. In Brazil, for instance, the informal waste sector has been provided with institutional support and organised into unions and cooperatives, making it easier for rag-pickers and scrap-dealers to access information collectively. In India, while there are instances of self-organisation within the informal waste sector, we still have a long way to go until there is no exploitation within the ecosystem.


– Written by Siddharth Hande and Kavya Balaraman: Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina
‘Role of AMIS in Resolving Information Asymmetries in Agricultural Markets: Guidelines for AMIS Design’ – Laxmi Gunupudi and Rahul De, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
‘Socio-Economic Issues in Waste Management By Informal Sector in India’ – Dr Rahul Singh, Birla Institute of Management Technology


Innovations in the Informal Ecosystem in Chennai


NOTES FROM THE FIELD


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MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 4)

This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Sannihit, who’s a student at IIT-Madras. Sannihit has been involved in collecting data from the field.

Walking through the streets of Chennai, hunting for kabadiwallas, I realised it is a relatively easy job to find them. Interspersed between houses and shops, many of these ubiquitous kabadiwallas often go unnoticed. And yet, they are the core of the informal waste management sector, the silent engines that take part in the process of waste management in the city. And my intention is to understand this ecosystem.

As I conducted the survey, I asked myself many questions about them and was confronted with doubts and contradictions. In this day and age, we are encouraged to consume more, and new needs are being created all the time. We define ourselves by our consumption patterns but not in terms of how we manage our waste. And ironically, when there is a system of kabadiwallas working with waste management, they are stigmatised for carrying out an ‘unclean’ job. Mr Rehman, one of the kabadiwallas I interviewed, is quite content with his business turnover. However, he said, “We are a little uneasy when people not only refuse to appreciate our job, but actually look down on it.”

Others aren’t even happy with their business profit. A regular complaint voiced by many kabadiwallas is that as more of them have mushroomed around Chennai, each shop’s customer base has declined. Other factors have also affected their business. “Over the past decade, there has been a steady decline in paper consumption. Digitisation has reduced the paperwork”, complains Mr Rajakumar, the owner of Vanaparvathi Waste Paper Mart.

This may not be a valid argument, since waste generation in the city continues to rise at an alarming rate – plastic covers, water bottles, magazines, furniture, electronic items etc. Even newspaper subscription rates continue to rise. On the other hand, Mr Rajakumar could be correct – especially if the increase in the number of kabadiwallas is disproportionate to the increase in waste generation. It’s also true that there are no restrictions on entry and exit in this system, thus making the field very competitive.

Time and space are key determinants of business for the kabadiwallas. The location of the shop is of prime importance. This factor greatly determines profits as well as methods of waste accumulation. Kabadiwallas located in residential areas usually collect the waste using a mechanical tricycle. Their business is relatively small. However, shops along the main roads manage to tap the waste flow from commercial spaces and many own motor vehicles. Kabadiwallas are also very conscious of ‘decency’ in the area in which they operate. The owner of Selva Vinayaka Paper Mart told me that he doesn’t generally doesn’t collect waste from rag-pickers, since his shop is close to a residential apartment and many of its residents would object to their presence.

Apart from all these observations, one thought kept me occupied for a while – should a situation come about in which the government takes it upon itself to responsibly recycle the waste generated in the city, will the kabadiwallas be considered a part of its policy? Cities in the western world very efficiently manage their waste by employing the latest technologies. However, in India, the same methods might disrupt the livelihood of the small-time kabadiwallas. In the Indian scenario, we cannot fail to capture the local subtleties. New technologies must help the kabadiwallas reinvent themselves in an evolving city. The small-timers should be provided with a level playing field. They should be equipped with information to conduct their job more efficiently.

A good economic return is a strong incentive for the kabadiwallas to actively expand their capacity. How does one help increase their revenue? On the other side of the equation, the kabadiwallas should equally be willing to adapt themselves. Will they accept changes that would unsettle their traditional work environment?


– written by Sannihit Bathula. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 3)
MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 2)
MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

The #InvisibleRecyclers Campaign


BUILDING A VISUAL ARCHIVE OF INFORMAL WASTE NETWORKS


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 3)

We’re excited to announce the launch of Kabadiwalla Connect’s latest initiative #InvisibleRecyclers, an Instagram campaign aimed at making informal waste networks more visible to the public. Through #InvisibleRecyclers, we want to celebrate the services of the city’s scrap-dealers and rag-pickers in recycling waste. A team of volunteers from C.A.R.E, the Eco Club from Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering, walked the city on April 4th 2015 to take pictures of scrap-dealers (kabadiwallas), itinerant buyers (raddiwallas) and waste-pickers, which were then uploaded on Instagram and aggregated on the Kabadiwalla Connect website.

The goal: creating visibility

Everyday, Chennai generates around 4500 tons of waste – which is dumped in landfills – and this statistic is set to exponentially grow over the years. The informal waste sector performs a vital service by keeping waste out of the landfill, and sending it to be recycled instead.

However, despite this, popular perceptions of the informal waste sector in Indian cities remain negative because of their association with waste. This isn’t the case across the globe, though – for instance, in Brazil, the government has legally acknowledged the services of informal players and implemented programs that incorporate them into formal waste management mechanisms. They are also celebrated by the public because of the work they do.

The campaign aims to create a sense of legitimacy around the players in this sector – scrap-dealers, rag-pickers and itinerant buyers, to name a few. Keeping this goal in mind, #InvisibleRecyclers was designed to create a visual archive of informal waste workers, and capture a sense of how they function.

Piloting the campaign

Around 40 volunteers from C.A.R.E spent a day in the city identifying and visually documenting scrap-dealers, rag-pickers, itinerant buyers and even communities who recycle, which were later uploaded on Instagram. The volunteers collected around 400 pictures.

Pictures that volunteers took over the weekend can be found at www.kabadiwallaconnect.in/invisiblerecyclers.

While the campaign has been launched in Chennai, we are looking to expand it to other Indian cities as well.

Some of the pictures taken as part of the campaign

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Inviting community collaborators

If you’d like to contribute to #InvisibleRecyclers, here’s how:

  1. Take a picture of scrap-dealers, waste-pickers, or anyone else in the informal waste ecosystem.

  2. Hashtag #InvisibleRecyclers,  #KabadiwallaConnect & #[your_city]. Add a description.

  3. Keep your location services on. This helps curate photos from different cities around the world.

  4. Post it on Instagram. Watch it come up on our site! Share this page on your social networks!

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 2) 
MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Historical Perspectives on the Informal Waste Sector


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Ever year, 42 million tons of waste is generated in India, which is the same as the amount of wheat Australia produces annually

Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.

The problem, though, is that leachate and toxins from untreated waste can affect a particular region for years, which is why municipal corporations are now finding it more and more difficult to appropriate areas to convert into landfills. In Bangalore, for instance, the residents of a village called Mavallipura, adjoining one of the city’s primary landfills, resisted efforts to continue disposing of waste in their backyard in 2012; the result was tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste, deposited on the streets of the city. Chennai, on the other hand, is currently routing its waste to two peripheral landfills – both of which will be reaching the end of their lifespan by the end of the year. As of now, no replacement area has been found.

Ironically, urban authorities do not need to face the challenge of sustainable waste management on their own. Most Indian cities have a robust industry of waste ‘experts’ – collectors, transporters and even recyclers – who make a livelihood out of waste, albeit under the radar. Most households sell old newspapers and cardboard to their neighbourhood kabadiwallas, but these men are merely the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the informal waste sector includes not just grassroot-level waste collectors, but series of middlemen who aggregate, sort and transport waste to the appropriate recycling facility – thus keeping it out of the landfill.

The Waste Chain

From a historical perspective, informal waste economies – at least as they are recognized today – began to develop around the 19th century. This was mainly in Europe and largely a by-product of urbanization and industrialization. As urban centres began to form and expand, the quantity of waste generated by them shot up as well. Simultaneously, the spread of the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for raw material, which proved to be infinitely cheaper when sourced from waste. As a result, an informal sector that began to identify items of value within waste streams, and then source, aggregate, process and eventually recycle them, began to form.

Spatially speaking, informal waste industries have organically formed in developing countries. While the first scavenging sectors sprung up in Europe, waste management systems in these countries were soon formalised and steered by local governing bodies, removing any room for unorganised private entities to continue making a living off waste.

However, the reverse has been true for countries such as India, Brazil, Serbia and Cambodia. These countries have witnessed rapid urbanisation, which directly translates to a huge increase in waste generation. They also experience large-scale migration of unskilled, untrained labour towards cities, most of which have no option but to turn to informal occupations such as waste-picking. Moreover, as countries develop more, their urban centres tend to produce a higher proportion of dry waste (paper, plastic, metal and the like), which have huge markets as raw material for the manufacturing sector.

On the other hand, their local governance mechanisms have not yet developed to the point of completely taking over the workspace of informal players. In India, for example, municipal corporations have the infrastructure and capacity to collect an average of only 70 percent of municipal solid waste, and even less to actually process it. This creates the ideal working conditions for a parallel shadow economy to operate.

Very few attempts have been made to actually map out and quantify the informal waste industries in different countries. Largely, this is because it’s extremely difficult – most waste-pickers and small-scale processors work under the radar and prefer to keep it that way, so as to avoid any form of harassment from city authorities. The sector itself is also a fairly disorganised one, with a huge overlap between activities, scale and hierarchy, making it tough to actually categorise its layers. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Brazilian government, for instance, has formally recognized waste-picking as an occupation and included it as a category in their official census. This has also allowed it to introduce various schemes to better incorporate these entities into formal waste management mechanisms.

In doing so, Brazil has tapped into a potential answer to waste management concerns that most developing countries can learn from: the informal sector has huge capacity for keeping waste out of landfills. As a community, these players have a lot more collective experience in dealing with waste profitably (and as a consequence, responsibly) than most local governments. They have organised themselves into a form of hierarchy based on scale, with lower-rung rag-pickers accessing waste from dumpsites, landfills and formal collection cycles, and higher-level middleman aggregating and segregating waste streams according to market demand. Scrap-dealers at the highest end of the waste chain deal with hundreds of tons of a particular waste category on a daily basis, supplying in bulk to manufacturers looking for cheaper sources of raw material.

Incorporating parallel economies into our formal mechanisms is far from an easy task; it involves policy-level decisions and some forceful execution to actually leverage the potential of the informal sector. On the other hand, given the kind of waste crisis that Indian cities are facing, this doesn’t seem to be an option we can ignore.


– Written by Kavya Balaraman & Illustrated by Satwik Gade. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review’ – Mufeed Sharholy, Kafeel Ahmad, Gauhar Mahmood and RC Trivedi

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘The World’s Scavengers’ – Martin Medina

‘Statistics on Waste Pickers in Brazil’ – WIEGO 

Celebrating Resistance: An Exhibition to Remember Three Decades of Struggle in Bhopal

Yes, Warren Anderson lived a full life of 92 years, escaping every law suit or call or cry possible. He probably had a wonderful memorial service organized by friends, family and colleagues. He will probably go down in corporate text books as the most resilient force against human rights movements as The Escapist, The Illusionist…

We can’t forget him. But, why does any struggle that questions economic growth, foreign investment, environmental degradation, or human right violations need to be part of our memory? Can’t we forget it as just another disaster? The thing is, these issues are not just happening in Bhopal, Cuddalore, Idinthakarai, or any one place. It is not a localized thing…

So The Remember Bhopal Trust inspired by the three decades of struggle by the Bhopal survivors, want to travel around the country, collect stories from similar struggles and weave it all in to a permanent museum in Bhopal.

As a start, from this Sunday, 9th of November 2014 to next Saturday the 15th of November 2014, in Chennai, the Trust has organized an exhibition of the lived memories of the disaster and the struggle that has followed.

Check out the event on Facebook. Join, invite, and go. Read and learn about the struggle at Bhopal.net

Sustained notes of struggle: The Anti-Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant Movement

APEX Express is a “weekly magazine-style radio…committed to building a broader social movement for justice and collective liberation for all oppressed people, including poor & working-class people, people of color, women and queer people.” Read more about APEX Express on their blog.

On 18 October 2012, APEX contributor Marie Choi called in activists from the Chennai Solidarity Group for a discussion on the various aspects of the anti-nuclear struggle in Koodankulam and the Government of India’s and the state government’s reaction to it. What follows is only the transcript of the conversation between V. Geetha and Nityanand Jayaraman (Chennai Solidarity Group) and Marie Choi (APEX). Listen to the full episode here and tune in every Thursday 7-8 p.m. for new episodes here.

Introductions

Protest against proposed nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, 1989. Shared by Prabakar Kappikulam

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy has been picking up steam and they’re organizing against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in the southernmost part of India. People in Tamilnadu have been organizing opposition to this nuclear power since 1988 when the Indian and Russian governments collaborated with big energy corporations and agreed to build this plant with no public information or input.

So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, United States stepped in hoping for their own piece of the Indian nuclear pa[indistinct] and eased India’s way into Nuclear Suppliers Group. The project was slated to move forward. Last year, the Fukushima nuclear disaster renewed concerns about the impact of nuclear plants on the health and safety of people living nearby. In August 2011, just five months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, protests in Tamilnadu picked up, with over sixty villages opposed [indistinct] people engaging in hunger strikes. Since then, the protests have escalated, with thousands of fisher people and residents staging protests in the waters around the nuclear plant.

We sat down with V. Geetha and Nityanand Jayaraman, members of the Chennai Solidarity Group, who have been working on the grounds to support the protests against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant.

My name is Nityanand Jayaraman. I am a writer, researcher and also a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for the Koodankulam struggle.

My name is V. Geetha. I am writer and historian. I’ve been working with the Chennai Solidarity Group which supports the struggle against the nuclear plant in Koodankulam.

English: Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant Deutsch: Baustelle des Kernkraftwerks Kudankulam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marie Choi – There’s been opposition to the plant for years and years, but was there something that shifted in August 2011? 

V. Geetha – Fukushima of course, which brought to reality what can happen in case a nuclear reactor goes in to danger. Also, what was happening in Japan, I think, that triggered off a major sort of anxiety about the plant. But, prior to that, I think, the people who have been coordinating the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy have been doing a lot of work on the ground. They’ve been going from village to village and trying to persuade people that this not such a good thing, and there may be jobs for a few, but in the end it’s really going to sort off affect their communities, their resources, their right to livelihood, their future and so on. So, I think, both these things came together and then people decided enough was enough. And they decide to this sort of prolonged sit-ins in their villages. The fishers, of course, have been the most vociferous, because they stand to be immediately affected since their livelihood depends on the sea. But, everyone else has pitched in as well. Those that do farming, small shopkeepers, teachers, just about everybody else that keeps a community going. I think, what has happened is that something which would have been just a routine government decision has become something that people have started talking about. They are talking about the environment. They are talking about safety issues. And they are also raising very fundamental questions about what kind of electricity do we need.

Marie Choi – Can you talk a little about why this particular nuclear power project is so important nationally within India?

Nityanand Jayaraman – I don’t know who it is important for. Certainly not for me. For the government, it has become both an issue of prestige and also, I think, it is payback time. With the nuclear deal with India and Russia, where India was seeking a way out of its, kind of, you know, it hadn’t planned much of its stake as far as the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s concerned. The Americans tried to mediate and tried ease the way for India to join the nuclear club without risks. As a result, it is now payback time. Corporations from Russia, from France, and from America would like a piece of the nuclear vibe. There’s supposedly a huge market in India. If all the plants that the government has proposed to build are constructed, there is a lot of money to be made. The Government of India is caught in a diplomatic bind, where it has promised to foreign governments access to India’s nuclear markets. This is not about India’s energy security. It is about honoring the debt, honoring the legitimate concerns of the corporations that might have bailed India out or helped India, the lobbying capacity of the Government of the United States.

V. Geetha – I would actually see it in the larger context of what is happening in countries like India, which is that a lot of communities dependent on natural resources, whether it’s the sea, the forest or the rivers, are being told that they must give over their resources to companies that are interested in mining, that are interested in generating electricity for the industrial use. And these communities are faced basically [with] a very drastic choice – that they give up their traditional ways of living, or they give up their dependence on natural resources, come to the city as cheap labour and work, or they protest and face the consequences.

Marie Choi – I’m curious. Do you see any connection between the nuclear energy projects and broader militarization?

V. Geetha – It may not be easy to make direct connections with absence of public information. But, one can safely say that the nuclear establishment whether it is concerned with civilian uses or for military uses is completely untransparent. You are simply not able to find out who makes decisions, on what basis are these decisions made. And anyone who interrogates the nuclear establishment, even the civilian nuclear establishment stands to be seen as an enemy of the State. So you have this very absurd and menacing scenario, where ordinary fisher folks of a village next to the plant, over 2000 of them have been charged with Sedition. So that should give you a sense of how the Government of India treats nuclear power, you know, capability. It’s obviously a matter of State secrecy, it’s matter that’s beyond civilian control, and the government’s, sort of, determined to keep it that way.

Links to Report on the Convention against Sedition and other Repressive Laws. PUCL.

Marie Choi – And, can you explain what Sedition means?

V. Geetha – Well… You know, as I said, it’s absurd and menacing. Certainly, because it’s ridiculous to charge a 14 year old with Sedition or 75 year old with Sedition, right? That’s whats being done! The Sedition law goes back to colonial times. It was used by the British to arrest Indian freedom fighters. And it’s a shame that we haven’t been able to take the law of our statued books. There’s been a campaign by civil liberties, civil rights group to do that. But, that hasn’t really ended. What’s happened over the years is that it is used by the State to quell dissent of any kind. And once you’re booked under Sedition Law, of course you’re allowed access to the courts..you may hear, you know, opt to defend yourself, you may have lawyers defending you, but it can mean a very protracted trial. And that can be very despairing for people who are poor, and who don’t want to be caught in this scenario, and who are merely protesting their right to, to retain their right to livelihood. So that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, you have the entire hysteria that can be whipped up around Sedition by the Media, by right-wingers, by those that are not supportive of people’s struggles. So. Whatever happens in the courts is one thing, but in the public eye this can create a lot of discomfort as well.

Marie Choi – If you are tried for Sedition and found guilty, then what happens to you? 

V. Geetha – Depending on the actual particular instance, which has earned you this label of being a seditionist. You could be imprisoned for life. You could have a very long jail term. And the worst case scenario is, if your name has been linked, whatever that means, if it has been proved that you’ve inflicted murder, you could face capital punishment.

Marie Choi – I’m also curious how class is being used? With all that’s going around this particular nuclear power plant. I mean, I’ve been seeing reports that they’ve been cutting power to people, even in the surrounding areas. But, a lot of it has been appealed to the middle class as well this energy is for you, this is to support your lifestyle, how is that played out? How real are those claims? 

Nityanand Jayaraman – In a sense, this kind of fixation on electricity, is essentially a class issue. If you look at what’s being talked about here that the nuclear power plant is crucial for India’s energy security, not electricity security, but energy security. We need to have efficient policies of how we can conserve on the transportation needs, how we can vamp up our public transportation, subsidize public transportation, and penalize private transportation and cars. I think, that there is a mis-match. I see electricity which is only 12% of the energy basket, to cooking which is a major issue. Our preoccupation if it were on cooking fuel, I think we would say that this is a society that tries towards equity. But the focus is on electricity. I think electricity is important, for people like me it is crucial both to conduct my work and everything else. The power cuts are real. I don’t think.. There might be orchestrated to some extent. But there is a scarcity of electricity. Are these electricity cuts equitably distributed? No. Yet, the IT companies, the Hyundai Motors, the Ford car company, these guys have 24/7 electricity. But children who want to study in the evening do not have electricity. The small entrepreneurs, the small, you know, people who run small workshops, they don’t have electricity. So the people who are being hardest hit are the people who can least afford it. And the people who are not being hit, are luxury consumers of electricity, like software companies and car manufacturers.

Marie Choi – Why is this something that people who don’t live in that area, who come from different class background, why is it something that they should care about?

V. Geetha – It is very, sort of, painful to watch ordinary people being made to go through such difficulties. I think there is a sense of social justice that people in the cities are sensitive to. I mean, this is not a large number obviously. But, there are enough people that  feel quite annoyed that their government is doing this to its own people. That’s on the one hand. Then of course, I think, there’s been a very real concern about nuclear energy. And I must say, Fukushima has played a very important role at least in sensitizing this generation of people to what a nuclear disaster could actually result in. That is also an important aspect to be kept in mind. And thirdly, post-tsunami 2004 there’s been a general sense of anxiety about what the sea can do, because the sea really caught everyone unaware. And those that live in the coastline, like in the city where I live, Chennai’s a coastal city, there’s also a sense that the coast is not something you can treat lightly, it follows rhythms that we don’t quite understand and we may not want to tamper with its natural rhythms over much. People also come to that from that understanding.

Anti-nuclear protest, near Idinthakarai, Koodankulam. September 13, 2012. (Photograph by Amirthraj Stephen)

Marie Choi – Four hundred days of sustained protest. What is it that sustained that?

Fisherfolk of this part of the country have a reputation for being fearless and militant. There’s that. [indistinct] That’s also, they will tell you if you ask them why, “Everyday we face death in the sea, so what do we have to fear?” So there’s that sense of romantic disregard for life. But, I also think that there is a certain disciplined organizing that has come about because the local communities have stood by them and the local church groups which have organized fisherfolk in particular have been very supportive. The Catholic church is very strong in these parts. And local members of the Catholic Church, I’m not talking about the Catholic hierarchy, but the local members of the Catholic Church have always been very involved in civic issues. And that has gone both ways. It has also meant that they support they most powerful amongst the fishing groups or they take the part of the more subaltern and the more oppressed. In this case, I think, the fact that everyone rallies around for a meeting when the church bell is struck, you know, that’s how they call people for a meeting. It’s also meant that they feel a sort of ethical, spiritual sense of doing this together in the name of something that is beyond us, not God so much, but the name of a nature that includes us, includes the natural world that is non-human. So there is that as well.

Marie Choi – If everything goes you’ll way, what does that look like? 

Nityanand Jayaraman – We would like to have this nuclear programme ended, at least for now. And the plant not commissioned. And the plant used for something that is saner, I don’t know what that is. The other thing is that the government should drop the cases that were filed against the people of Idinthakarai and Koodankulam. More than 300 cases have been filed against about 150000 people. 10,000 people have been charged with Sedition and waging war against the state. This is the response a democratic state has had to bunch of people protesting nonviolently for more than a year. Among the people who are charged with Sedition and Waging War Against the State are also children. I think, that, they must drop these. And if they have the courage, apologize sincerely to the people of Idinthakarai and thank them for trying to bring sanity in to India…

The music played in the background is ‘Song of the Coastal Lilies’, (Neythalin Paadal), a movement song  by Pedestrian pictures

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This English transcript was done by volunteers in Chai Kadai. Feel free to share, copy, distribute and translate this transcript under this Creative Commons license. Please attribute the podcast interview to APEX Express. 

Chai Kadai. (chaikadai.wordpress.com | chaikadai@gmail.com)

 

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What You See Might Not Be Real

The sculpture “What You see Might Not Be Real,” by Chen Wenling, was displayed at a Beijing gallery Sunday. A bull  ramming the biggest con man of all time, Bernie Madoff, into a wall. The huge cloud coming out of the bull’s rear symbolizes the danger of virtual bubbles in international financial markets. In a society based on desire and money, some people choose to create many false impressions, while others sadly fall for them.

Chen Wenling’s sculptures are the manifestations of extreme humanity and immaterial images in a consumption society. This  recent series blurs the directness of the social metaphor in an interesting way. The reality of ‘Consumer Society’ is so indeed. The consumer culture brought by the development of Chinese economy and the resulting material abundance exerts profound influence on them both in terms of visual perception and cultural context.

His self extreme condition begins from the series of “Red Boy”.  It is neither realism nor vanguard sculpture, but the self expression of Chen Wenling himself to the critical state of life. For example, dread, gladness, game and fancy are thebasic main motivations of his sculpture. This series of the “Red Boy” conveyshis experience in an autobiographic form. One is the allegorical sculpture forms and the other is the manifestations of extreme humanity.

source: chenling.com, odetoart.com