Delhi generates more than 10,000 tonnes of garbage every day.
Sometimes I wonder: are we a nation of harmonious schizophrenics? A nation and a people who have the infinite capacity to constantly and simultaneously live on two planes of experience and consciousness, and not know the difference? I ask this question in the context of the nationwide campaign of “Swachchh Bharat”. Launched with great fanfare in 2014, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme to make India a cleaner country.
In terms of intent, the idea cannot be faulted. We are as a people incorrigibly impervious to the filth we coexist with. It is almost as though we don’t notice it, as we go about our everyday lives. A pious Hindu will take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga totally unaffected by the filth and garbage on and around the bathing ghat and the polluted state of the river itself. His concern is the religious ritual and the rewards it could yield; anything outside this personal zone of priority remains perpetually out of focus. The practice of religion sanctions this self-centredness: a Hindu will be obsessed with the ritual purity of his person, but not notice the filth around him.
It is precisely for this reason that most often the greatest amount of filth is seen around our most sacred temples. When Mahatma Gandhi visited the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, he was “deeply pained” by what he saw. In his autobiography, he describes the approach through a narrow and filthy lane, swarming with flies, and rotten and stinking flowers inside the temple. The same absence of cleanliness can be seen, for instance, at the Jagannath temple in Puri. Garbage is strewn all around. I have personally seen huge cockroaches on the ornate garlands around the deities. Swarms of flies feast off the prasad. None of this seems to distract or deter the devotees.
How much has this state of affairs changed today? No doubt the vast amounts of money spent in advertising the Swachchh Bharat slogan has created some awareness about the need for a cleaner India, but has this really helped to create one? Just last week, a bench of the Supreme Court — no less — exasperatedly asked who is responsible for the increasing mound of undisposed garbage in Delhi and the lack of a policy for waste management. Delhi generates more than 10,000 tonnes of garbage every day. Of this, only a fraction is treated and the rest is dumped in landfills. According to reports, the Ghazipur landfill in the capital is more than 50 metres high and could soon dwarf the Qutub Minar! The position of Bhalswa and Okhla landfills is equally perilous. The apex court asked with anguish why the solid waste management rules framed by the Centre in 2016 had not been implemented. In September last year, the court had asked the government to “show strong desire and commitment” to deal with the problem of waste disposal, after two people died when the Ghazipur landfill had collapsed. When for eight months the government did not come up with any strategy to tackle such appalling conditions, the court was compelled to issue orders to fix authorities on erring authorities.
If this is the mess in the capital of India, one can only imagine what the situation in other cities must be. Mumbai, the financial capital, has seen — like always — a spectacular municipal collapse after the monsoons arrived this year. The drainage system completely failed, with sewage and garbage floating around in rivers of filth in the main highways of the city. Air pollution levels in all our cities are perennially at hazardous levels, affecting the young and the elderly in a manner that could enduringly affect their health. The Yamuna is unbelievingly toxic; the Ganga is far from clean; and natural lakes and water bodies in the high-tech capital of Bengaluru froth with chemical pollutants.
It is true that progress has been made in the construction of toilets. In January 2018, the government claimed that six crore toilets have been built across rural areas, and three lakh villages and 300 districts have been declared open defecation free (ODF). This is encouraging news. But without devaluing such an achievement, an independent agency needs to do an audit to see how many of these toilets are actually functioning. There is reason for this scepticism. In April this year, the CAG report for 2016-17 stated that not a single toilet has been constructed in Delhi under the Swachchh Bharat plan, and that, in fact, `40 crores allocated for this remains unused!
Keeping all this in mind, I find it both amusing and a matter of concern that the Niti Aayog has only now come up with an “action plan” to further the goal of Swachchh Bharat. This much-too-delayed reaction is in response to a recently released World Health Organisation (WHO) report which bluntly states that 14 of the 15 most polluted cities are in India. The action plan speaks of institutional measures to reduce air pollution through the increasing use of electric vehicles, prevention of burning of crop residue, shutting down of polluting power plants, incentivising waste processing and taxing landfill sites, and mandating compulsory mechanical dust removal measures in cities, etc.
But the real question is that surely such an action plan should have been the first step after the PM made his clarion call for Swachchh Bharat. If institutional measures — apart from the construction of toilets — were not taken for the last four years, and are only now being formulated, is this not a rather strange way to implement the laudable goal of Swachchh Bharat? The fact of the matter is that radical steps of systemic nature needed to be planned, funded, monitored and implemented to make India physically cleaner. A slogan, however well intentioned, can never be a substitute.