What if Delhi’s municipal elections were being fought not by political parties but by the best municipal commissioners and officials from across the country? We would have been spoilt for choice had that been the case, at least as far as making Delhi swachh is concerned.

Imagine the folks over at Mysuru fighting over the best way to decentralise waste management – make sure it is undertaken at the locality-level. Pitted against them would be the municipal officials from Kochi, pushing for rooftop composting and recycling. Aurangabad would be a strong contender, because, as it would say in its manifesto, it knows how to get wards to segregate their waste.

We would then have had a less fractured vision for creating what most political parties in this hotly-contested election have been fighting for: a garbage-free Delhi.

Cleaning up

Municipal elections in Delhi used to be unsung affairs, catching the attention of only a few middle-class workers. But in recent years, this has changed – partly because of the huge piles of garbage across the city, the annual vector-borne epidemics and indiscriminate dumping in landfills that are now catching fire.

It is no surprise then, that every party contesting in Sunday’s elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi has something to say about how it will clean up this city.

Three major themes dominate. The first poll plank common to the main parties in the fray – the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party – is the closure of landfills.

There are three authorised landfills or dumping grounds in the city, at Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla, where piles of unsegregated waste intermingle with the earth to create mountains of garbage.

The BJP and the Congress party say upfront in their manifestos that they will stop waste from reaching Delhi’s smoking, spewing landfills. But how will they do this? We are not sure, although the Congress mentions waste segregation and composting. The BJP plans to fight landfills by using waste from the landfill to build roads The Central government has already started this in East Delhi.

My imaginary candidates, the municipal commissioners, would have worked out ward-based composting and recycling, trying to follow the YIMBY, or Yes, In My Backyard logic, where every household or every neighbourhood does composting within the colony.

Wooing workers

A second favourite is improving the lives of sanitation workers. Every party woos them robustly in their manifesto, promising them secure livelihoods (permanent jobs) and timely payment of salaries. The sanitation workers in East Delhi have gone on strike five times in the last three years, adding to the cities garbage woes, to ask for their salaries that have not been paid for months.

This newfound love for sanitation workers makes political sense because of their enormous numbers and because of them are born into the Valmiki caste, which are electorally significant.

But while sanitation workers get much-needed attention, waste pickers and scrap dealers from the informal sector have been all but left out. Former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India party, which is contesting its debut elections but is fighting from most of the wards, talks of their inclusion, but stops at that and gives no further details of what that would mean. It also plans to give waste pickers cycle rickshaws, something that many already have.

The Congress talks of I-cards for informal sector workers. It does not speak of waste pickers specifically, though it does speak of other types of informal workers. Indirectly, it also talks of livelihood creation because it plans to push for decentralised composting, which will take place at the neighbourhood level, something waste pickers and waste workers undertake in many parts of India. It is as if recycling has been entirely ignored, or poorly understood, across party lines.

Can you imagine this manifesto from a better-informed commissioner who really desperately wanted to win the seat? Officials from Pune, Chandigarh and Indore could have addressed this one with confidence as these cities have given I-cards to waste pickers. Pune has even given them a city-wide contract for doorstep waste collection and a management fees to supervise the process.

For the love of tech

The love for technology is another thing apparent in party manifestos. The AAP promises to use cutting-edge technology to get rid of landfills. One assumes the BJP’s plan to clean markets at night, which will also need better technology than what is presently at their disposal to make the process quick and safe.

The Swaraj India party too lists out the technology it seeks. One of them, a waste-to-energy plant – which uses trash to generate power – is disappointing given that thousands of citizens had fought the setting up of such a plant in Okhla tooth and nail.

They had reason to: not only did waste pickers lose their livelihoods as paper and plastics on landfills were diverted to the plant, but fallouts and thick dust became commonplace after the plant began operations. It takes only a quick search to see how amazing technologies at the decentralised level are in India today. Even big, bad Mumbai and Navi Mumbai has found a sensible answer through bio-gas and composting, technologies that helps the city to reduce the environmental crisis and pollution that comes out of landfills.

No room for responses

As an environmentalist, I strongly desire to publicly debate all political parties. But I cannot, because the manifestos have only come out over this week. The AAP send its manifesto electronically to thousands of people, including me, on Wednesday evening. This is precisely why the glaring errors in the manifestos cannot be addressed or clarified through debates. It’s fait accompli – and the public is at the receiving end.

If I could, I would have asked the parties one basic question: why did the elementary school mantra of the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – not occur to them? Although it is known that Delhi is drowning in its waste, no party mentions waste reduction. Even banning plastic bags was not discussed, far less any other kind of waste.

There was no mention of reuse either. If we make it expensive to opt for one-time use products, perhaps this will help us reduce as well as reuse. This, along with instilling pride in our inherited legacy of reuse, would reduce the burden on every single citizen and our landfills.

That brings us to recycling. Almost 60% of Delhi’s plastic recycling is informal. It employs hundreds of people, and saves us acres of landfill space. What’s the plan for that? What’s the plan for the trade chain that sustains this recycling? What’s the plan for the waste pickers – the poor who sell paper, carton, plastics and metal to make ends meet?

Delhi’s waste pickers have protested against the penetration of large companies into their spaces to usurp the waste recycling process. Not one party addresses the take-over of these services, that were provided just as well by enterprising waste pickers and was also their source of livelihood, by conglomerates.

It would seem then, that no single party read up the waste rules and the law of the land, which is inclusive of the sector. But never mind. We were unable to influence the manifestos, but there will come a time, after the results are out, when the victors will have to actualy address Delhi’s trash problems. We will have to push them then.

Bharati Chaturvedi is Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.