India hiding from its own ‘crap’

April 23, 2012

By C. Uday Bhaskar

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

India, to put it euphemistically, is awash in its own ‘crap’ — a word derived from old Dutch to mean excrement. While accurate to an alarming degree, coming soon after the euphoria over the Agni missile tests, the discomfiture is evident.

Till recently, collective India preferred to do the ostrich act over its own excreta and waste management and stoutly refused to acknowledge that such a situation existed at all — let alone perceiving it as a major national challenge. The Indian ostrich act was to bury the collective head and public discourse into the 3C sand — the staple cricket-cinema-crime combine.

Management of waste — public, private household — was not even quantified in a scientific and systematic manner and hence the problem did not exist. The state and its municipal/civic affiliates responsible for such disposal opted to live in virtual reality and the unwritten media norm was to blank out the crap from the news. Baudrillard’s simulacrum has indeed enveloped India — crap and all.

But the reality that rears its head is that not one India city qualifies to be deemed to have average/acceptable waste disposal capacity — in keeping with the prevailing global standard for water, soil and air pollution.

However, there is a silver lining to this dark and stench-filled cloud, in that there is the emergence of a more scientific and holistic approach to this issue. In a pioneering study, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) led by Sunita Narain has released what may be termed the first  detailed report that is aptly entitled: ‘Why Excreta Matters’ — as part of the  “Citizens’ Seventh Report on the State of India’s Environment”.

The survey is stark and cause for considerable alarm — if Delhi and the state capitals can find the time to get beyond the zero-sum, political navel-gazing and mud-slinging that has become the norm in the current phase of the jaded Indian democratic experience.

Based on the 2001 Census of India, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS – 3) of 2005-06 and the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data, the CSE report offers a reality check. India does not have an accurate assessment of how the excreta generated on a daily basis by its billion-plus citizens is disposed. Strange but true. Period.

In macro terms, 64 percent of Indian households “did not have access to any kind of toilet or latrine” and while “roughly half of urban India has flush/pour toilet latrines, only 18.8 percent of these latrines are connected to a piped sewerage system.” Septic tanks and overflowing soak pits litter the Indian urban underground with little or no regulation. Providing piped safe drinking water is no longer a civic responsibility and the state has abdicated in favour of the market and the bottled water industry.

Poverty is overwhelming in India and while the debate continues about the minimum wage, one inescapable reality is how degrading it is to the daily grind of the impoverished Indian citizen. As per data released by the Ministry of Urban Development, ‘one out of six urban Indians is forced to defecate in the open every day’ and the gender implications need little reiteration. But paradoxically, the CSE report points out that it is not the poor but the better off citizenry that contributes to the majority of the waste and sewage in urban India. In a quarter of the 71 cities/towns and their slums that were surveyed, the CSE report concluded that this cross-section “of the cities generates only 5 percent of the cities’ (total) sewage.”

More disturbing is the revelation that 37 percent of all wastewater generated “is let out into the environment untreated”, which in turn contributes to as much as 60 percent of water pollution — and is yet to be addressed in a holistic manner.

No Indian metropolis has the kind of comprehensive sewage treatment that the burgeoning urban demography demands — and apathy is the prevailing leitmotif. A good monsoon is seen as the annual answer to clean the accumulated waste and filth of urban India.

While the overwhelming stench that hits you within minutes of hailing a cab after landing in Mumbai is characteristic of the city, New Delhi has the dubious distinction of having ravaged its river ruthlessly and converting the Yamuna to a perennial drain with untreated industrial and municipal waste choking it. The latest report from the Delhi University notes that the arsenic contamination of ground water from the Yamuna floodplains in the national capital is several times the permissible limit.

‘India stinks’ may be the more appropriate and accurate phrase to describe the reality that is India. A major public discussion is slated for April 24 in New Delhi around the CSE report and it will be instructive to see what the participation index is, when the IPL cricket frenzy has seized the country. Perhaps India needs more sewage and sanitation professionals than missile expertise but for that realisation to materialize, the Indian ostrich would have to remove its head from the ‘crap’ it is hiding from — and in.

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The amount of money spent by Indians in building temples and making offerings to gods in one form or the other each year during the past 100 years, should have made each and everyone in India rich and happy far beyond anyone’s wildest dream, assuming God does exist in India. If only a fraction of the effort and thought had gone in to improve the environment, the country would not be in such a dire condition.

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