As another Independence Day rolls along, we, as Indians, need to introspect on an issue that we are all fond of speaking and writing about but not so much on taking positive action. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, with his eye for detail and his passionate conviction about the need for self-improvement, deplored the insanitary habits of his countrymen. It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that his 145th birth anniversary in 2014 saw the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission by the Indian Prime Minister. And yet, if one sees the habits of fellow Indians, one doubts whether the ambitious goals to be reached by the Mahatma’s 150th birthday will be realised. I do not wish for a moment to spread pessimism about what is undoubtedly a noble venture. It is just that our countrymen (and, to a lesser extent, countrywomen) are still so blissfully ignorant of, or uncaring about, basic hygiene. The four letter words that we are taught to abjure in conversation are very much in existence when we undertake, in public, different functions relating to waste disposal (for the sake of politeness, I will leave it to my readers to infer them).
The first and foremost sight that assails our visual senses whichever way we turn is the one huge garbage dump we have made of our habitations, whether city, town or village. I had personal experience of this till recently at the flat in Bengaluru where I stayed for one year. The open space next to the flat was the dumping ground for the solid and liquid waste of all the households in the area. The owners/tenants of the higher floors of flats abutting the open space did not even take the trouble of coming down to throw the waste; the law of gravity did all their work. Compounding the problem in Bengaluru is the absurd approach of the Municipal Corporation, which apparently does not believe in garbage bins. Not surprisingly, there are piles of garbage at every street corner, adding to the menace of flies and mosquitoes. Bengaluru may be the information technology capital of India, but it is also fast achieving the status of the dengue capital of India. Even when the garbage is collected, no scientific method of segregation of wet and dry waste is employed; the entire muck is thrown into the back of three-wheeler vehicles. I am told that the transport lobby is powerful enough to stall alternative approaches to waste collection. While working in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation in the late 1990s, one of my jobs was to oversee the cleaning of storm water drains in the eastern suburbs from Chembur to Mulund. With every type of dry and wet waste finding its way into these drains, including industrial scrap from the thousands of small manufactories in Kurla, it came as no surprise that the first heavy downpour accompanied by high tide levels would leave large parts of the city totally submerged. The same story repeats itself even today in Mumbai, despite the (pious?) intentions of the city fathers (and mothers) and its bureaucrats. In the late 1990s, Mumbai had created a force of nuisance detectors empowered to detect and penalise (through fines) citizens littering and spitting on the roads. Like all good ideas, this died a natural death in the course of time. But, in the final analysis, it is only when his pocket is hurt that the blasé Indian citizen will heed instructions on waste disposal, as he does in Singapore, San Francisco and Sydney. Nor is the problem of waste limited to land sites. The cleaning of the holy Ganga River, revered by millions of Indians, was undertaken with much fanfare almost thirty years ago. There is little to show for all the money, time and effort that have gone into this exercise. Contrast this with the successful exercise in fifteen years after 1986, of the Swiss, French and German governments, to improve the quality of water in the Rhine River, which flows through heavily industrialised areas. Water quality monitoring is carried out every six minutes at different points along the river in Germany and offending industries are penalised. One has not heard of any similar measures being implemented along the Ganga, with the tanneries of Kanpur City spewing out carcinogenic poisons into the river, not to mention the many urban settlements along the course of the river discharging their sewage directly into the Ganga.
We move on to another national pastime: spitting. An apocryphal story has it that Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that if all Indians spat together, it would be enough to drown all the three hundred thousand Englishmen ruling India. The habit shows no signs of abating after India’s independence. Move anywhere in public and you are greeted by a hoarse, hawking sound, followed an instant later by the expectoration of an ample quantity of body fluid. The widespread fondness for betel leaf (paan) and tobacco lends a touch of colour to the environment. The walls of public buildings (especially staircases) receive a generous coat of human paint at regular intervals. Woe betide the individual dressed in spotless white clothes: he has a more than even chance of getting his clothes dyed a reddish pink through the oral efforts of his fellow man (yes, this is an activity to which gender equality has not yet percolated). And yet this is one activity where no concerted public action is evident till today, notwithstanding its public health hazard: the prevalence of tuberculosis in India is, at least in part, an unfortunate consequence.
There is yet another waste disposal activity which has remained a jealously guarded male preserve: urinating in public open spaces and on walls of buildings. Build any number of public toilets and Sulabh Shauchalayas: the male Indian still retains his birthright to let fly in public. I still remember being overcome by ammonia fumes when passing one of the colourful gates in Jaipur; architectural marvels are not immune to these depredations either.
And then we come to India’s greatest public health and sanitation problem: open defecation. Not only is this a major cause for the spread of an assortment of communicable diseases, recent studies have also established a direct correlation between this and child stunting, where India registers one of the highest percentages in the world. Women bear the brunt of the lack of toilets: not only does it constitute an affront to their dignity, it also compromises their safety when they have to venture forth in darkness. I still recall the women of the village having to hastily stand up on the roadside in the midst of their ablutions in fading daylight when, as a district officer, I had to enter or leave the village at that hour. Toilets in urban slums were, and still are, badly maintained and child-unfriendly, leading to highly insanitary conditions in areas already burdened by poverty and poor healthcare access. Even after fifteen years of a national sanitation campaign, more than half the country is not served by toilets, whether public or private.
I have not even touched upon noise pollution, an area where India, with its election campaigns and religious functions, not to mention car, bus and truck horns, holds its head proudly aloft in the comity of nations. A touch of black humour has been injected by a recent Indian government report ranking the best performing Indian cities in the Swachh Bharat campaign. Bengaluru, which I have had occasion to refer to earlier, ranks among the ten best cities in the country. Experts feel this high ranking is largely on account of good intentions and the relatively worse position in other cities. It reminds me of the finance manager-philosopher Nicholas Taleb’s description of Mediocristan where the values of a population are clustered around an average in what we term to be a normal distribution. In the Indian Mediocristan, a slightly better performer tends to be eulogised since the benchmarking is by modest national rather than outstanding international standards. Be that as it may, it is now time for all Indians to pay attention to issues that bedevil not only our lives but imperil those of future generations as well. With apologies to Cassius, “The fault, dear Indians, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. The Mahatma was prescient in making cleanliness one of his planks for social change; it is apt to close with a quote generally attributed to him “हम सुधरेंगे जग सुधरेगा” (be the change you want to see in the world).
Happy Independence Day!