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A Messy Affair

A Messy Affair

In India’s capital of New Delhi, new housing projects sprawl as far as the eye can see – a symbol of the world’s fastest growing economy. There are also towering symbols of the environmental cost of this. Going along National Highway-24, just look for the birds. Under thousands of hovering vultures is the city’s mountain of trash. One of the four landfills in the city, the Ghazipur garbage dumping site stands tall as a gigantic black mark in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supposedly golden Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

The tipping point for the hulk-like mountain range of trash came this past September when an avalanche of garbage keeled over onto a road. In its momentum, the trash crashed through a boundary wall, pushing cars and motorcycles into an equally risk-laden adjoining drain. Two people died and seven injured in the mishap. As images of cars floating in the drain water mixed with leachate surfaced, one was forced to reconsider the plan and purpose of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister Modi’s flagship programme.

The cleanliness mission was flagged off on the 2nd of October, 2014 – just months after Prime Minister Modi assumed office. Part of a catalogue of projects meant to change the face of India by 2019, the year Mr Modi’s term will end, as well as assure his return to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, the cleanliness drive was also supposed to be his gift to the country and tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation.

The programme has been divided into Swachh Bharat Urban (SBM-U) and Swachh Bharat Gramin (SBM-G). The urban part of the program is handled by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs as the nodal ministry. The rural part is under the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The primary task of the programme is to construct toilets and that is done either by the individuals with funding help from the government or the government. The latter is done mostly in case of public toilets. As and when individual units are completed, photographs and details are submitted to the government that updates latest available data on a daily basis on the websites of concerned nodal ministries.

The numbers have a story of resplendent success to tell. Under Swachh Bharat Urban 30,74,229 individual toilets have been constructed, 2,26,274 community and public toilets are now available and 1,325 cities have been declared open defecation free. Swachh Bharat Rural’s story is just as fulsome, with more than 2.5 lakh villages being declared open defecation free.

With the 2019 deadline to make the country open defecation free fast approaching, the authorities are in an obvious rush and are trying every trick in the book to build as many toilets as they can. Unfortunately, building toilets is only half the problem solved. The other crucial half lies in the proper maintenance of these toilets. An efficient sewage system is a prerequisite. A steady supply of water is just as important. And that is where Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s supposedly fool proof plan hits its first roadblock.

Earlier this year, eight states — Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — were declared drought-hit by the central government. In fact, to soften the blow of the drought the government even allowed the residents of these states to offer 50 extra days of work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. A heartening move indeed but it does make one question the logic on which the government functions. There is no water but there are toilets in these and other such drought-hit areas. Do the policy-makers expect the muck to vanish into thin air?

The little water that the people belonging to the drought-hit parts of the country can get they will use for their domestic needs. In several other places, the water source is located kilometres away from the residential colonies. The people, mainly women, have to make the arduous trip to the community well, common hand pump or the river bank with their pots in hand to get water. Now, taking into consideration the effort that goes into bringing home merely two pots of water, most people are reluctant to drain several litres of it into the toilet.

Old habits die hard and keeping in view the circumstances it is not difficult for the people to go back to defecating in the open.

A survey by the National Sample Survey Office of 3,788 villages and 2,907 urban blocks in the first eight months of the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan showed that six out of 10 toilets in rural areas didn’t have any water supply. To make matters worse, the necessary plumbing infrastructure required to carry the human waste out of homes to disposal sites was available in only 36 percent of the toilets. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board has found that nearly 40 percent of the 10,821 toilets it built since February 2015 remain unused.

The success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is being reported by the number of toilets built under it. But this is a faulty metric because it is not a given that latrines built automatically translate to toilet use. The suspect data coming out of the government has led to the World Bank withholding their promise of $1.5 billion loan towards Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; the first instalment of which was due in July of 2016. According to the World Bank, the Indian government fell short on its commitments, specifically failing to show independent verification of the findings presented in the NSSO reports.

Constructing toilets is only a surface solution; scratch the surface and therein lies bare the sham of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Merely building toilets that will eventually fall to desolation is not helping anyone’s case – neither the public for which it is built nor the government whose exchequer is being emptied out.

What the country does need is longstanding solutions. Water treatment processes like “toilet to tap,” wherein wastewater is recycled to a standard as pure as distilled water, could be a way out. The thought of consuming wastewater can be repulsive, but the “toilet to tap” initiative has been embraced in Singapore, Malaysia and California, USA, among other places, where it is said to have done wonders to mitigate the impact of water scarcity.

Now, if numbers so brazenly displayed on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s websites are anything to go by, one would be misled into thinking that constructing toilets is the only way of ensuring a clean India. Sure, open defecation due to non-availability of or limited access to toilets is a health hazard and is no way to go if cleanliness is on top of our minds. But, ask yourself, is that the only bane plaguing the country presently?

That the people do not have access to matters of basic need is indeed unfortunate. What is just as unfortunate is having the flagship project completely sideline the need for basic cleanliness. The cities are drowning in garbage. Every street corner and every open area is sooner or later on track to becoming a garbage dumping site. There has been no stop to dirt and filth strewn on the streets. The lack of sanitation and cleanliness is costing us dearly.

Bottom line? Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is de rigueur, but what a mess it has turned out to be! The visible signs of a failing programme are today glossed over by the tyranny of numbers. The figures are skyrocketing, but the reality is pointing to south.

At the core of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is “swachhta” or cleanliness – cleanliness that extends to clean streets; proper waste management; pollution-free land, air and water, among others. Going back to the earlier example of the Ghazipur landfill, that it is an eyesore has been established, but more importantly it goes against all markers of cleanliness just described.

The Ghazipur landfill holds 13 million tonnes of waste. It passed its saturation point way back in 2002. Today, it harbours an expanding volcano of toxic gases and lethal waste. Nobody would like to have a dumping ground in their backyard. Yet, the residents in the surrounding areas of Ghazipur have had to bear with the monstrosity that towers over the skyline.

The festering garbage is toxic. Methane from the dump explodes daily, leading to dozens of spontaneous fires that spew toxins into the air. In addition, during monsoon, black leachate trickles out of the landfill. Heavy metals and organic and inorganic pollutants wash into the soil and Delhi’s main river, Yamuna, polluting both river and ground water. These are issues that stem from the dumping of untreated waste at the landfill site.

In Delhi alone, there are three other such dumping grounds. Together, the landfills of Delhi are twice the size of Vatican City. Another such killer landfill is Deonar dumping ground. Deonar is one of Mumbai’s three landfills where all sorts of waste – organic, metal, plastic and e-waste – is collected and dumped without being processed or segregated, for the last 90 years. The height of the garbage in this overburdened open landfill reaches 55 metres in spite of 35 metres being declared as the maximum it can go, by the Airports Authority of India. The toxic fumes generated by these trash mountains also give rise to pollution.

The Central Pollution Control Board has reported that waste from India’s cities has crossed 1.43 lakh tonnes per day, of which a substantial 12,858 tonnes are not even collected. Of the 91 percent or 1.3 lakh tonnes collected, around 65,000 tonnes are dumped or disposed of in the most unscientific and unhygienic manner. Only 23 percent is being treated while 77 percent is dumped in landfills.

One would think under the grand scheme of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a panacea would be in sight for treatment of waste, but unfortunately that is not to be. In the first two years, the mission did not focus on collection of segregated waste from households and commercial spaces. Even the systems to support segregation were not created in most of the cities. It is only in the third year of the mission that there have been efforts to promote segregation of waste material at source. All statutory towns and cities have been directed to adopt source segregation as a mass movement, with every household segregating their waste into two bins – green and blue. However, its implementation in the last four months has been bleak.

On the third anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that for Gandhiji’s dream of a Swachh Bharat to be fulfilled, the strength and efforts of 125 crore Indians have to come together. Yet, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has done little to nothing for its main facilitators – the manual scavengers, sweepers, cleaners and rag pickers. The gaping hole in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is that the ones who have kept the country clean so far and continue to do so have not been included.

Mr Modi gushed about the inclusion of 125 crore Indians, but did not utter a single word in support of annihilation of caste or to break the inexorable link between occupation and caste. As the nation marches towards the goal of a cleaner tomorrow, a certain section, which had always been subjugated, is further pushed into the dark abyss of casteism.

The elimination of manual scavenging was much talked about during the inception of the cleanliness drive, but three years down the line what we have is men wading through the cesspit of human excreta or dying entering clogged sewer pit. Again, there are no jetting or super sucker machines to make the work easier.

A sample survey conducted by Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social justice group headed by Ramon Magsaysay-awardee Bezwada Wilson, in 12 states found that there are 32,874 dry latrines that are cleaned by approximately 6,700 manual scavengers. With increasing number of toilets that have no supply of water, the need for hands to clean the muck and septic tanks is only going to increase, thereby widening the caste divide.

The gains of this campaign till now are all credits to the people at the grassroot level who have by the burden of their birth taken to cleaning up day in and day out unquestioningly. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has seen more publicity than most other government schemes. In promotional event after event, Mr Modi has appeared in his perfectly pressed kurta and pyjamas, wielding a broom, which was probably cleaned up for this occasion. He comes out for photo op on one day of the year. What about the rest of the 364 days? These remaining days belong to the downtrodden on the streets. Props to the Prime Minister for being the first of his league to speak about sanitation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, but as it stands words alone cannot bring about change.

The way things are presently in terms of cleanliness, there is a sea of difference between various areas within a single town. While some areas are clean as a whistle, the other places are overwhelmed with dirt and filth. It cannot be that the rich and the powerful are cleaner than the underprivileged. Then how does it happen that some areas are beautified while others are squandered away. Needless to say, more money is spent in keeping the privileged places clean. The mission for 2019 is Clean India, not Clean-In-Parts India.

The goal for 2019 will remain a chimera if the government with its attention-crazy brooms and sticks continues to sweep the dust under the carpet. What is required is a thorough clean up act and that’s the only way India’s development agenda will truly benefit.

(Published on 23rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 43)