Clean India: What about the garbage?

Politician are “bluff masters” and will do just about anything to fool all of the people all of the time.

 |  4-minute read |   09-11-2014
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When is it okay to be gullible, sceptical or just plain daft? No one who lives in India or visits it can deny that we need a serious clean up mission. It’s bad enough that there’s dust everywhere – we are a hot country after all. But there’s also debris, waste, garbage, rubbish, whatever you want to call it lying around wherever you look.

So who’s responsible? You could always blame us, collectively, as a society. We’re usually not bothered about chucking litter around. We want our waste out of our homes but we’re not concerned much what happens after that. We cover our noses when we drive or walk past a heap of garbage or an overflowing bin, ignoring the humans and animals that are scavenging about. There is a nation-wide dire shortage of garbage bins. We also know that we behave somewhat differently when we travel to countries which may have a slightly different approach to garbage.

The thing about garbage clearance and waste management is that it is a municipal or local council issue. State and Central governments usually don’t have much of a role to play. Although they might step in and seriously look at garbage dumps across the country. And there, I’ve gone and used that horrible word. No, not garbage or dumps but “seriously”. I mean, seriously, who wants to think about stuff like garbage dumps and bins and waste management when you all have to do is wear a chiffon sari or a Nehru jacket, pick up a broom made of wooden sticks and move dust from one part of the road to another?

Politician are “bluff masters” and will do just about anything to fool all of the people all of the time. And when they announce some grand intention but follow it up with zilch in term of either policy or implantation programmes or money then you know it is just so much garbage. But what about all our celebrities tripped over themselves to clean India by doing really bad Harry Potter-learning-to-play-quidditch imitations?

The most obvious advice to them would be to vote in the next municipal elections wherever they live. The next would be to look into the short, nasty and brutish lives of conservancy workers. After that, give a little time to rag pickers and scavengers. Then how about ensuring that your neighbourhood at least segregates wet and dry garbage? You could even have compost bins in your homes to recycle kitchen waste? You could petition and campaign — in your carefully crafted Bhagalpuri silk sari and raw silk, er, Modi jacket for companies to reduce packaging material so that 5 inch cell phone is not wrapped in enough thermacoal, plastic and paper to fill up an entire waste paper basket? Our new cultural protectors tell us all too often these days about how western culture is not good for us. Why not make a good Indian culture beginning by reducing packing waste.

No, I know. Practical stuff doesn’t make for a good photo op. Plus holding a broom doesn’t really cost that much effort. The problem is that a broom is not going to clean India. It works only metaphorically. You need sound and effective thinking, integrated systems and you need investment. You need to treat the non-chiffon sari-wearing sweepers and garbage collectors more like human beings and less like untouchables.

The Mumbai suburb in which I used to live – certainly one of India’s better run cities with a municipal budget of Rs 30,000 crore – has discussed segregated dry and wet waste for three years and done almost nothing about separate collection processes. The part of Dehra Dun where I now live has no garbage collection system at all.

The Indian countryside is a gigantic dump of discarded plastic packets and wrapping. Driving up to the hill station of Mussourie in the sunlight all you see are streams of rubbish falling down the mountainsides. The story is no different anywhere else in India.

You might notice that I have mentioned nothing about health and sanitation. That’s because my few remaining sane brain cells have been fried by images of one more has-been film star making fun of us by picking up a cheap symbolic broom. I might as well try catch a snitch.


Ranjona Banerji Ranjona Banerji @ranjona

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media, politics and social issues.

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