The Cleaning Act

Anumeha Verma
Published: April 2015

Best of cities in India as well as rural areas have fallen victim to unsightly piles of garbage. Will Swachh Bharat Abhiyan do the needful?

cleaningThe zigzag of buildings on the skyline tells a tale of a country growing by leaps and bounds. Standing in our balconies we can see skyscrapers being built that would feature a helicopter launch pad on their terrace. However, the ground below tells a different story in India and you really do not have to go a long way to read it. Take a walk in your neighbourhood and there is a high probability that you would chance upon a pile of garbage rotting in the open. Most of us dig into our pockets for the handkerchief or hold our breaths till we are through with the stretch. Yet, it does not make us take any action.

The lack of cleanliness and hygiene in both the villages and cities of India have been a topic of debate for a long time. It has once again come to limelight with the Prime Minister launching Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The Drive has a $10 billion budget and has taken three approaches to clean India; install toilets in all the homes in India, improve waste disposal and create public awareness on how health and cleanliness are related.

The scheme in itself has to be applauded though it is highly embarrassing that educated masses of the country with all their excellent qualifications have to be told by the Prime Minister of the country how important cleanliness is. Usually, these are lessons taught in school but we Indians seem to have missed the point. Wrappers of potato chips and banana skins are a common sight on the roads. Hands often come out of the windows of buses and cars to throw waste after consuming the edibles. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that the our streets do not remain clean.

modiWhile the lack of respect shown by people for cleanliness beyond the boundaries of their homes is an issue, the paucity of proper waste disposal mechanisms has made it further difficult to counter the growing garbage and sanitation problems in both urban and rural locales. Before 2000, India did not even have a comprehensive Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling Rules). It was the intervention by Almitra Patel, a Bangalore based Civil Engineer to sow the seeds for the Act. She filed public interest litigation in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India requesting the Supreme Court of India to direct the Urban Local bodies as well as the Government of India and the State Governments in the country to improve Solid Waste Management practices. The writ petition was withheld by the Supreme Court, finally leading to the appointment of a Waste Management Committee and forming of a comprehensive strategy for it.

Almitra owns a farmland and she noticed that she could no longer hear the frogs croaking near it. On investigation, she found out that the frogs were dying due to the sewage and garbage being dumped in the wetlands. Realizing this, she filed a PIL in the Apex court of India in 1996.

Not all citizens are as enterprising as Almitra when it comes to saving the environment and ensuring that waste management is given a priority. This despite the fact that New Delhi based Energy and Resources Institute has predicted that the waste generation in Indian cities would increase five times its present volume by 2047 and amount to 260 million tonnes per year.

Industries and residential complexes, both are culprits when it comes to producing waste in cities. From wrappers of potato chips to industrial sludge, much of it is inorganic in nature aggravating the already serious problem of waste disposal. The growing migration from villages to cities in search of livelihood has also increased the population of urban areas exponentially, thereby also increasing the waste being generated. Villages are not without their share in the garbage dilemma but the form of waste produced in the village is predominantly organic in nature and can be decomposed. But, in the dearth of a proper waste disposal system the waste remains piled up in open lands. Another severe problem faced in villages is the lack of basic sanitary facilities. Most homes in the villages and some even in the city do not have toilets till today in India. Consequently, people go out in open fields. 72 per cent of the rural populace in India relieves themselves behind the bushes, in open fields.

The severe injury to health and infection due to open defecation does not need to be stressed any further. Every year it the cause of several illnesses in different parts of the rural India. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is also aimed at rectifying this problem by building toilets in all the houses.

2019 is the set target to clean India of its waste and lay the foundation for hygienic sanitation in villages. The challenge is definitely too great in a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion. The financial cost of the entire five year old project is being estimated to be at over Rs 2 lakh crore. The Government has allocated Rs 146 million while the rest is supposed to be funded by the corporate sector, international organisations and other sources.

cleanA greater challenge than meeting the financial cost would be changing the mindset of people who do not think twice before throwing a banana skin on the road after peeling it or spitting on the walls and disfiguring them. Besides, cleaning waste and garbage is seen as a menial work by several Indians who believe that such tasks are fit only for those from the lesser privileged section of society or those from a particular caste. First and foremost people would have to acknowledge that to maintain cleanliness is not the duty of a particular caste but that of each and every person.

As far as issue of open defecation is concerned, it has its own set of cultural connotations. There are people who still believe that toilets should not be there inside the house and defecation should be performed far away from home to maintain purity. Will the people who walk miles away from their home to go to fields every morning agree to build toilets in their houses and use them?

Without changing the mindsets which encourage the practice of unhygienic and environmentally hazardous activities, it would be difficult to surmount the increasing problem of cleanliness in both the cities and villages of the country.

Another major issue is waste disposal system. The infrastructure for waste disposal at present in both urban and rural areas can be best termed as rudimentary, for a growing country like India. The segregation of dry and wet waste at source is a concept that has still not been fully accepted in urban areas. Landfills, on the other hand are already witnessing an overflow and demands are increasing on the existing ones day by day. Creating an efficient infrastructure for waste disposal is therefore instrumental if we want the garbage that is being cleaned from the roads to be disposed in true sense of the word.

One of the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is to create awareness among the public on the reciprocal nature of cleanliness and health. If that can be done effectively, half the war would be won. It is quintessential to change attitude and let go of biases towards cleaning and traditionally rooted cultural beliefs to see the story unfolding on our grounds that we witness when we look at the skylines of the country. The task though difficult is essential.

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.