Miles to go before India's clean

Everyone from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to the New York Times has pointed well-washed fingers at the sorry state of public sanitation and waste management in India.

In his Independence Day speech on Aug 15, Mr Modi vowed to create a Clean India, a Swachh Bharat, in which girls' schools would have usable toilets, the Ganga would be clean, rubbish would be cleared and paan stains would not mark the stairwells of public buildings.

As Indians flock to the cities and the middle class expands, the country faces problems that urban consumer-oriented societies elsewhere have faced for the past 200 years. India adds two qualities of its own: Unheard of population density and caste.

Today, the urban population is about 400 million and increases at about 2.5 per cent a year. It will be close to 500 million by the next census in 2021. In 2011, the country had 53 cities of more than one million people and 412 towns with populations of more than 100,000.

Until the 1990s, towns and cities contained only about 220 million people, and urbanites did not have much to throw away. Wives darned socks; husbands collected old newspapers to sell to the kabaadiwaala, the door-to-door buyer of discarded goods. Households had a "sweeper", a low-caste person who came to sweep floors, clean toilets and remove any remaining "waste".

Plastic arrived in a big way only from the mid-1990s, but by 2012, the Central Pollution Control Board estimated that India threw away 15,000 tonnes of plastic a day or 5.5 million tonnes a year.

Estimates vary widely, but by one calculation, urban India generates 65 million tonnes of waste a year or 178,000 tonnes a day. In weight, that represents more than five million Toyota Corollas a year. If you were parking them bumper-to-bumper, you'd need a carpark about the size of the state of Kerala (38,000 sq km).

Waste quantities grow as economies and consumers grow. Singapore with a population of about five million, or less than one-third the size of New Delhi or Mumbai, generates more waste than either - 8,300 tonnes of accurately measured waste a day. (Mumbai is said to produce less than 8,000 tonnes; Delhi, about 7,000. But who knows for sure?)

Local governments are responsible for waste management, but they are the poor relations of India's political structure. They depend on state governments for much of their funding and for the legal powers to enforce regulations.

To build an effective water and sewage system, create a "scientific landfill" or operate a "complete combustion" incinerator requires planning for wide geographical areas, big investments and predictable volumes of waste. To bring scores of local governments into a common plan is an immense task. The "urban agglomeration" of Chennai consists of eight cities and more than 30 other units of local government.

At their worst, local governments go to war with each other and disputes end up in the courts with one unit of government bringing cases against another.

Yet local initiative and support are crucial for the effective control of waste. Individual waste-creators - householders, merchants, builders and industrialists - have to see advantages in supporting systematic waste management. And people who make a living from waste have to be part of the systems. "Recycling gets done," says one of the classic books on waste, "not because it is a good thing; it gets done if it is a profitable thing."

Ideas of caste present India with problems that growing cities elsewhere did not face. It may well have been migrants - Irish, Poles, African-Americans, Italians and others - who dealt with much of the filth of 19th and 20th century cities in Europe and North America.

But escape was possible, and usually only a single generation earned its living at the dirtiest end of the waste chain.

In India, that is not the case. The majority of safai karmacharis working for local governments or for Indian Railways are Dalits (Scheduled Castes, once called "untouchables"). Dalits face outrageous prejudice and violence, in spite of more than 65 years of "affirmative action". The Supreme Court recognised in 2014 that 960,000 dry latrines were still being cleaned manually by Dalits.

Visceral beliefs about ritual purity are widely held, and such beliefs involve distancing oneself from tainted objects. The Hindi word chhuut - "the touch of something ritually impure; ritual contamination" - captures such feelings. A Dalit intellectual writes: "Indian culture… is nothing but caste culture. This culture externalises the responsibility of maintaining cleanliness to a particular caste."

To alter deeply-held feelings will require persistence and example. Having a prime minister from a lower caste, who is not dvijya or twice-born, who has a remarkable mandate and who makes Clean India a signature campaign is an important start.

A market research report released in September estimated the "waste management market" in India to be worth US$13.62 billion by 2025. India's Outlook magazine noted that the new government had promised Rs1.96 lakh crores (about US$39 billion) to the Clean India campaign, and "NGOs and corporates (many of them foreign)… have spotted a killing to be made in cleaning up India".

The corporate waste-management industry in India is small. The market-research report identified 15 "waste management players in (the) Indian market" but only four of these, of which Ramky of Hyderabad is the largest, appear to deal in all aspects of waste. In contrast, companies such as Waste Management, Inc and Republic Services are among the largest corporations in the US.

Specialist corporations bringing management and technology to waste control seem an attractive solution to increasingly desperate local governments. But technology and corporate management are simply components of effective waste control in Indian cities.

Local commitment and understanding are essential to achieve the cooperation of residents and the inclusion of people who derive their living from waste. And there must also be clusters of authority large enough to manage big projects - "scientific" landfills, major recycling centres, water treatment plants or costly "complete combustion" incinerators.

A prime minister committed to Clean India will need all his powers of example to shift the belief that public sanitation is somebody else's pre-ordained task. To paraphrase a favourite line of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, there are miles to go before India sweeps.

Robin Jeffrey is visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

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