India hiding from its own ‘crap’
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 ‚Äėcrap‚Äô — 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‚Äôs 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:¬†‚ÄėWhy Excreta Matters‚Äô — as part of the¬†¬†‚ÄúCitizens‚Äô Seventh Report on the State of India‚Äôs Environment‚ÄĚ.
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¬†‚Äúdid not have access to any kind of¬†toilet or latrine‚ÄĚ¬†and¬†while ‚Äúroughly half of urban¬†India¬†has flush/pour¬†toilet latrines, only 18.8 percent of these latrines are connected to a piped sewerage system.‚ÄĚ¬†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, ‚Äėone out of six urban Indians is forced to defecate in the open every day‚Äô 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‚Äô (total) sewage.‚ÄĚ
More disturbing is the¬†revelation that¬†37 percent of all wastewater generated¬†‚Äúis let out into the environment untreated‚ÄĚ, 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.
‚ÄėIndia¬†stinks‚Äô 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 ‚Äėcrap‚Äô it is¬†hiding¬†from — and in.