Cows on the loose? Canals used as dumps? Urban life can throw up some unique – and bizarre – challenges. Meet the people charged with fixing gritty problems in our cities.
Word of Ravindra Sharma’s arrival can spread through a congested New Delhi neighbourhood before he even steps out of his car. Cow herders appear out of nowhere, desperate to prod their cattle off the streets and out of Sharma’s sight. They know that the veterinarian they’ve nicknamed baba (hermit) is here to take away their wandering livestock.
Though a cow causing traffic chaos on a busy road is a ubiquitous sight in New Delhi, cattle aren’t allowed to roam the city’s streets despite being revered by Hindus. But the city has an estimated 500 unauthorised dairies and when the cows have been milked, they’re often let out to wander – illegally.
“All the neighbourhoods where unauthorised dairies typically operate know of me,” says Sharma, the director of veterinary services for the South New Delhi Municipal Corporation, who leads a team of about 50 cowcatchers. “As soon as they see me coming they spread the word.” Once the cattle are rounded up they are taken to one of five shelters run by ngos but funded by the city and state governments. At any one time there are about 21,000 cows in the shelters. It’s an expensive operation: the feed bill alone is more than inr345m (€4.4m) per year.
Cattle are a problem in most Indian cities and it’s one that’s exacerbated under Narendra Modi’s bjp-led government. The populist government – pandering to its Hindu base – has tightened regulations against trading and transporting cows. The fear of being branded a cow smuggler and being beaten to death by gangs of gau rakshaks (cow protectors), has meant that more cattle – especially older cows who don’t produce milk – are being abandoned, adding to the problem.
It can be tough work but, for Sharma, it’s a worthy endeavour. “I love it,” he says. “I’m able to take effective action for the good of my city.”
Jakarta is the archetypal broken megacity: perpetual gridlock, smog and rubbish. It’s Oswar Mungkasa’s job to try to impose some kind of order onto this chaos: Jakarta’s deputy governor for spatial planning and environment was named chief resilience officer in 2016. He was tasked with finding solutions to a major challenge: the disposal of the 7,000 tonnes of rubbish produced in the city every day.
“The problem here is that we have never really tried to tackle the sources of the problems,” says Mungkasa. “We always try to find the easy way.” Bantar Gebang, Jakarta’s main landfill site, contains 30 years’ worth of rubbish; in two years it will be full. The city has come up with a short-term fix: an “intermediate treatment facility”. The plant will be able to take more than 2,000 tonnes of waste, separate recyclable materials and burn the rest for fuel; three more such facilities are in the works. A network of waste banks, where citizens are paid cash for recyclable items, will also be expanded to limit the flow of rubbish.
Mungkasa’s team is preparing to publish designs for five issues that need addressing but he admits that organisational paralysis could make change difficult to implement. “You cannot do anything revolutionary unless you bomb Jakarta,” he says. “But at least we can do something that isn’t business as usual.”
“It’s a bike,” shouts a tourist. This is hardly unusual in Amsterdam but this one isn’t on land: it’s being hauled out of a canal by an oversized claw operated by a specialised team of bicycle fishermen. There are about 847,000 bicycles in the city, about one for every inhabitant. Those left standing close to a canal are likely to disappear into the water, either toppled in accidentally or thrown in by vandals; bicycles are the most common waste items in the city’s canals.
Waternet, the firm that manages the city’s water infrastructure, has a team in its waste-collection department that removes about 20,000 bicycles from the city’s canals every year. “Imagine not cleaning the water for a few days in a busy city like Amsterdam,” says Jan de Jonge, a senior member of that team. “All the bikes would pile up to the surface.” Submerged bikes scrape and damage the undersides of boats, especially the large barges that ferry tourists around the city.
De Jonge is part of a team of three that has two specially designed boats: one fitted with a large claw for lifting bikes and an open barge to drop them in. The recovered bicycles are scrapped and recycled into drinks cans. Other oddities are also recovered: a street barricade, tree trunk and car tyres. “A lot of phones land in the water,” says De Jonge. “And, unfortunately, the occasional corpse.”