In 1987, a barge named Mobro 4000 departed New York Harbour with 3,100 tonnes of baled refuse for a resting place in North Carolina. Its ordeal started when it was denied permission to unload there. It hit the coasts of six states and three neighbouring nations, looking for a respite that never came. Finally, it was forced to sail back to New York with the trash, capping a 5,000-mile odyssey. Mobro became an overnight sensation. Pictures of it hauling the garbage filled newspapers; environmentalists decried inaction leading to such disasters; talk show hosts devised sarcastic punches around it. And Greenpeace came up with a provocative banner that said: “Next Time Try Recycling”. Suddenly, America started looking at its filth differently, and more seriously, paving the way for massive waste management plans and the emergence of large corporations to recycle its waste.
Independent India hasn’t yet had its Mobro moment. It has, in fact, faced much worse. In Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, authors Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey wade through the country’s trash to find out why as a people we still fail the basic sanitation tests and what could possibly be done to contain a looming hygiene crisis from escalating into a full-blown tragedy of immeasurable proportion. More importantly, in a society still rent with caste and communal faultlines, whose job is it anyway to clean the trash?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the architect of Swachh Bharat Mission, tells these authors that two disastrous events have influenced his attitude towards social change and sanitation—the Morbi dam tragedy of 1979 and the Surat bubonic plague scare of 1994. A dam on the Machhu river collapsed during heavy monsoon downpours, releasing a wall of water through the town of Morbi in Gujarat, killing at least 1,800 people. In the case of the Surat plague scare, unofficial accounts indicate around three lakh people abandoned the city in just two days, making it the biggest post-independence migration, as the death toll rose. An attitudinal change of people in and around Surat followed, and the decision-making ability of local bodies was raised to tackle disasters.
But a glimpse into our recent sanitation records suggests that overwhelming portions of the country’s population and policy-making apparatus haven’t quite learnt their lessons. Around 88% of the roughly 21 million households in small towns with up to one lakh people each were not connected to sewers till 2015. More than a half of 46 million households in cities with over one lakh people had no access to such facilities. Over a third of our population in 2017 lived in towns and cities, where 60% of feces and urine generated each day found its way, uncontrolled, into water channels and onto open ground, the book says.
As prosperity rises with economic growth, just between 2006 and 2011, the number of motor vehicles jumped from almost 90 million to 142 million. This points at the massive amount of waste they would generate when they go off the road, despite accounting for some recycling. Mounds of e-waste are the next big challenge in our sanitation drive. In fact, there are many, many scary statistics to shake even the most optimistic of citizens.
Doron, an associate professor and Australian Research Council Future fellow in anthropology, and Jeffery, a visiting research professor at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, have dug out details from government records, interviewed stakeholders across spectrum and gone through innumerable works of others on the subject to bring out this book that impresses with its quality of research and a reasonably fair assessment (done by foreigners) of the next big crisis facing this nation.
What is remarkable about the book is its fine blending of hard realities with anecdotal, historical, social and economic details to keep the reader deeply engrossed on a subject that would be considered by many as unglamourous. Where the book scores high is its humane portrayal of India’s army of ragpickers/kabaadi-wallas, most of whom are Dalits. Stricken with abysmal poverty and segregated from the mainstream by the perversity of caste and class systems, the millions of ragpickers are our most potent soldiers in the long and difficult war against filth. Devoid of money, education, social security and honour, this vulnerable section of society does the dirty job and often falls prey to the associated health hazards.
If Swachh Bharat were to be a grand success, a large-scale participation of this vital segment of population, mainstreaming such jobs and large-scale training to them to handle waste will be key. Thousands of self-help groups and NGOs can also be tapped to handle waste more effectively.
The corporate sector is gradually waking up to the potential of making a business out of trash, as in the developed world, more so after the Companies Act mandates that firms have to spend 2% of their profits on corporate social responsibility.
The book refrains from offering a proper assessment of the Swachh Bharat Mission, perhaps because it’s too early to draw conclusions. However, it has rightly offered enough hints to suggest excessive chauvinism or ultra-patriotism in projecting any sanitation drive, and berating those who are still outside this mission can be counter-productive. Some disappointments though. The authors seem to have insinuated that enamoured by Gandhi’s India-lives-in-its-villages ideal, policymakers in independent India didn’t plan enough for the sanitary health of its cities for a long time.
If politicians indeed cared for the Gandhian principles and worked for the all-round development of villages, why are sanitation parametres so pathetic in rural areas, even worse than many cities and towns? Also, Gandhi’s emphasis on villages can also be interpreted as the recognition of the fact that we can’t build islands of prosperity amid an ocean of poverty. Empowering villages is a necessary pre-condition to empowering the whole of India.
The book seems to be in a bind over pronouncing any unambiguous verdict on whether India’s economic progress will be good for waste management. However, while frugality holds promise of lower waste levels, rising opulence points at the inevitability of higher consumerism. It also sort of absolves the poor, say, pavement dwellers, of any obligation to maintain hygiene merely because of poverty.
While poverty is a blistering problem in sanitation drives, cultural, attitudinal, behavioural changes among people, including the poor, have most often hindered its progress. If India is to remain clean, all sections must rise up and contribute to the best of their capacity, irrespective of their economic status. After all, when 14 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities happen to be in your country, there is no place for excuses.