“If you can imagine the smell of dead, rotting flesh—festering and rancid meat, decaying organic matter, the suffocating smell of burning plastic combined with the sickly sweet smell of decomposition of tons of garbage—that’s what it smells like," says photojournalist Hari Adivarekar, describing the “smellscape" of a Bengaluru landfill, where he has been shooting his latest project #BangaloreisBurning, a photography exhibit which showcases stories of how people from Bengaluru, across all classes of society, are affected by open garbage burning.

“I was nauseous for days after this project, having gone deep into dumps and landfills. There are many visuals that I can’t get out of my head, but it’s the smells I can’t forget", says Adivarekar. Bengaluru’s garbage problem has for long been a clearly visible phenomenon; piles of trash lie uncollected in corners, in abandoned plots, in unattended yards. But now, citizens are exacerbating the problem by trying to make the garbage vanish through a very toxic route—burning it.

Garbage burning is now so common in Bengaluru that most people don’t even know that it is illegal and extremely toxic. Studies done by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on ambient air quality in the city show a 57% increase in particulate matter in just four years (2010-2014), and garbage burning is a significant reason behind this sharp spike. Avijit Michael, interim executive director at Jhatkaa.org elaborates, “#BangaloreisBurning is one part of a much larger campaign by Jhatkaa to address the issue of air pollution in the city. Uncollected garbage is most often not segregated—there’s organic material mixed with plastics, electronics, styrofoam, medical waste. And when burnt, this is extremely noxious."

“This campaign was started to show the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) proof of the severity of the situation, and urge them to end this dangerous practice", says Divya Narayanan, campaigner. “By sharing these stories, we want to motivate people to not only join our campaign but take action in their daily lives". One part of this campaign is citizen submissions of photographs of open burning in their neighbourhoods through a whatsapp forward-based system. Jhatkaa is collating this information into an interactive map so one can see how widespread the problem is, and which parts of the city are severely affected.

The issue of garbage burning is a symptom of inefficient waste management systems, an increasing problem in Bengaluru, especially after the crisis three years ago. The landfills at Mavallipura, Doddaballapur and Mandur on the outskirts of the city had to be closed between 2013-2014 after a series of protests by the nearby villagers over the deteriorating living conditions. The air and groundwater had been severely polluted, and a sharp increase in incidences of chronic diseases among citizens living near there was observed in the last decade.

“People in the landfills are separating muck with their bare hands—garbage that you and I throw, but would not even be able to look at later without feeling nauseous", says Adiverakar, while shedding light on the class and caste issues that are tightly entwined with this complex problem. “When I realised that garbage is supposed to be segregated and treated in a certain way, it was late—I was already an adult. And my first thought was—someone has been doing this dirty work for me for years. And now one can see, it is most likely a lower-caste person working below minimum wage. We need to be asking ourselves how we let this happen."

While this issue is reaching a crisis point, there are remarkable stories of change that each of the campaigners highlight. Many organisations and initiatives in the city are tackling this seemingly insurmountable issue—for example, the ‘2 bins 1 bag’ drive that makes information about waste segregation easy and accessible and organisations like Daily Dump that encourage people to compost organic waste at home. About citizen action like this, Adivarekar says, “These are not people who seeking fame or acknowledgement, they’re just behind the scenes doing the things that need to be done, and creating genuine change. These are the people who need to be celebrated, and more importantly, emulated."

According to the BBMP, about 40% of Bengaluru households segregate garbage at home, which is quite high, as compared to other Indian cities. Officials are quick to point out that this number is steadily growing, as more people understand the magnitude of the issue and are able to take action in their day-to-day lives.

“On the last day, we will be projecting video interviews that I have conducted with citizen activists and experts, who have been working on this issue over the last few years." Adivarekar concludes, “So we are talking about solutions, not just highlighting the problem. I hope Bangaloreans attend this event, acknowledge as well as engage with this issue and take action."

The photos will be displayed from 8-10 July, 2016 at the Chhaya Gallery, Rangoli Metro Arts Centre, MG Road Promenade.

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