The looming problem India is not really talking (or worrying) about
It's a big mess. It is killing our citizens and making us sick.
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I jump across the hole in the footpath, crossing the gurgling sewer beneath while deftly avoiding what looks like dried vomit on the other side. I have to get down from the footpath anyway, for ahead it is covered with rotting garbage with flies buzzing around it like a cloud of nano-dust.
I step towards the restaurant I love, and freeze momentarily as a little rat scurries past. Then, looking up to check if anyone saw a 33-year-old man stand petrified against a little baby rat, I head towards my food.
The setting is one of the hottest areas of Koramangala in Bangalore, filled with food joints, thronging with startups and generally considered a close competitor to Indira Nagar’s hot-dom.
Inside the restaurant, the delicious waft of biryani has already pushed any thought of the dreadful things I’d seen into distant memory. I’d read later on Zomato that a customer found a little dead bug in his food at the same restaurant.
Indian cities have a looming problem of hygiene and we are hardly talking about it.
Sure, there is the Swachh Bharat campaign. But in the last two years, it hasn’t elevated beyond mere lip service. It’s an opportunity for the ministers and local politicians to pick up a broom and pose for the cameras.
It’s a feel-good catchphrase for India One, the elite 5 per cent that is concerned in equal proportions about India’s development and catching the latest Netflix series, to repeat and quell any guilt that they’ve participated in some fundamental change for the country.
Yet, the superficial treatment the problem has received belies how critical it is.
Take a casual walk around most neighbourhoods and you are likely to witness at least a half a dozen instances of "Bharatians" spitting and throwing waste. Restaurants dump their leftovers outside. Households leave garbage along the streets. Our streets are adorned with banana peels, biscuit covers, plastic bags, used food containers, urine and shit.
Sewers drain out onto the road when there is rain, a broken pipe or well, just a low of sewage. Rodents, pests and insects, the size of mutants irradiated by a nuclear fall-out, haunt our streets and homes. Street dogs, often feral and diseased, live their pathetic lives along the sidewalks.
Our cities are festering pools of diseases. If we were in the medieval era, our cities would’ve been wiped out by plague. Their squalour is perhaps the only unifying Indian experience.
Government apathy and, the general shoddiness, in how our cities are managed by its corporations plays a big part. Poor infrastructure, support and non-existent enforcement have all contributed to this mess.
It is killing our citizens and making us sick. It makes us all less productive and seriously impairs life-expectations of those whose income doesn’t sufficiently insulate them from these streets.
India saw a doubling of incidents of dengue in 2015 and 2016 is likely to be no better. A doctor from a leading hospital predicts at least 25 per cent jump in dengue cases this year over 2015.
Last year, more than 10 lakh children under the age of five died in the country. By comparison, China had less than 2 lakh such cases. India’s company here is Pakistan, Angola and Congo. The causes of death, apart from birth complications, were all related to our pallid state of affairs when it comes to hygiene: pneumonia, diarrhoea and sepsis.PM Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat campaign, broom in hand, but it hasn't amounted to much. (Photo credit: PTI)
As a country, the hygiene problem must surely rate among the top threats, right up there with poverty, lack of education, water, food security, terrorism, etc. right?
Wrong. India spends a scanty sub-1.5 per cent of its GDP on healthcare. And note that this is the money spent on post-problem treatment - of diseases, setting up facilities and medicines. When you look at allocation to hygiene and sanitation, it is non-existent.
The Swachh Bharat cess adds up to a mere Rs 600-700 crore. It must be seen how this is being allocated and used but even assuming that it is being funnelled transparently to the right areas, this is next to nothing in solving the problems we face.
As our cities and towns grow unplanned, and more people stream in looking for work, this is likely to get worse. Economically too, this is going to cost the government thousands of crores of rupees of lost productivity, treatment and care for affected citizens.
And let’s not delude ourselves that this is a problem of education or better quality of life. Sure, some of the more fundamental issues (like having toilets) are problems of prosperity and education. But, haven’t we seen educated, well-to-do folks from our cities dump garbage on the street outside their homes.
There is a big cultural aspect that we just have to accept. Are we dirty as a culture? Is hygiene something that’s never high on our list of priorities?
While catchy campaigns can try to address that, we cannot expect to change decades (or centuries?) of ingrained attitudes quickly. And we cannot afford to wait for generations to change for our cities to get cleaner.
Strong disincentives and enforcement is perhaps the only way our seemingly inbuilt comfort with squalour and lack of hygiene can be overcome.
We are entering a world where the threat that a superbug could emerge, resistant to all drugs, and annihilate large portions of mankind is very real. Do we really want our cities and towns to be welcoming buffets for these to fester, multiply and feed off our citizens?
We may not care much about it right now, and those inside comfy apartments and homes may feel that it is a distant problem, down in our streets and gutters. But all it takes is one major epidemic to begin spreading and it may quickly turn into the biggest disaster our country has seen.
And once that starts, it is not going to stop in our streets and gutters. It will invade our homes irrespective of the large forbidding compounds and swollen bank balances.