Millennium Post

Filthy cities, looming disaster

On a fine summer noon, I notice two diligent municipal workers scooping dust adjoining a curbside storm drain, near a train station. There is no trace of humans for nearly a mile. I wonder why they are concerned as the road appears ultra clean; because it is Amsterdam and not an Indian city.

Far away in India, even 50 years hence, one may not witness this scenario. The reason: people here are indifferent, they do not mind living beside putrefying garbage mounds. This is the reality, from Jammu to Delhi to Kanyakumari. With plastic cards enabling increased purchasing power, consumption has swelled and wastes generation catapulted. Discards thrown out of homes pile up at and choke dumpsites.

In the open, be it shopping arcades, market surroundings, roads, pavements, parks or beaches, the ubiquitous rubbish, animal craps and spit blobs are strewn everywhere. Walkers and vehicles, oblivious of its presence, move on trampling them. In the national capital, the only exceptions are the VVIP areas of Lutyens’ Delhi and the interiors of metro stations – well maintained. Outside, it is the same ugly story.

As garbage rots, cattle, dogs, rodents, mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches mill about, feed on and breed in them, posing a severe health and environmental hazard. Each cubic meter of garbage may produce 800,000 flies, which can transmit enteric infections such as dysentery, diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, besides eye and skin ailments.

Roadside trash clogs storm drains. In monsoon, rains bathe and soak the garbage leading to decay and nauseating stench. More dangerously, sludge becomes a hotbed for breeding of malaria- and dengue-causing mosquitoes. Recent research across cities shows that dengue, earlier confined to urban areas, has now penetrated rural setups. India could well be heading for a major health crisis if municipalities across cities and towns fail to wage a battle against the stinking trash, and massively improve sanitation. Cities are sinking in their own wastes. Residents have adapted and conditioned themselves to coexist with filth after generating them; though they are aware that the milling-about insects pose a serious health hazard and danger to lives.

Every day, urban India generates 188,500 tonnes (TPD) of Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) or 68.8 million tonnes per year (TPY). This wastes generation is increasing by 50 percent every decade, says Ranjith Aneppu, India Coordinator, Global Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology (WTERT) Council.

In a ‘business as usual scenario’, this will more than double to 160.5 million TPY (or 440,000 TPD) by 2041. In the next decade, urban India will generate 920 million tonnes of MSW that needs to be properly managed to avoid further deterioration of public health, air, water and land resources, and the quality of life in cities. India will not be able to dispose these wastes properly, Ranjith says.

The Surat epidemic seems deleted from public memory. In 1994, the nation was shaken out of stupor by a pneumonic plague epidemic in this diamond city that affected hundreds and killed scores of residents. Having learnt a lesson, Surat has today transformed from one of the filthiest cities to a glorious example of a clean habitat. Following a massive and vigorous clean-up operation initiated after the catastrophic outbreak, the goal is: zero wastes at any cost. As night falls, hordes of conservancy workers descend to sweep and clean streets and roads. Other cities, especially Bangalore and Delhi, have failed to emulate the Surat success saga shaped by collective attitudinal change in its inhabitants, the local administration, its administrative machinery, municipal workforce and private players.

The 2012 garbage crisis in Bangalore has returned to haunt the city and serves as a reminder of impending crises in other towns and cities. A situation that was waiting to explode was ignited by an article in New York Times which highlighted the IT and garden city’s ineffective and unscientific waste management. The problem was compounded after rains drenched the garbage mounds leading to putrefaction and unbearable odour. More than a year after the nightmare unfolded, the Bangalore municipality is awaiting the arrival of civic officials of San Francisco to help deal with the reality. In adjoining Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram is no better. With decreasing air quality, respiratory diseases, specifically in women and children, have increased tenfold, according to a study.

An analysis of media reports shows that in a majority of towns and cities across the country, garbage collection methods, involving private agency partnerships, have grossly failed – with a very few exceptions like Surat.

As cities expand clawing beyond their peripheries, landfill sites have moved to outskirts and are choking. Having become conscious of spread of diseases, dwellers in suburbs are agitating and preventing disposal of garbage at dumpsites saying ‘not in my backyard’. The residents are also opposing civic bodies’ proposals to set up SWM projects.  A corporator was recently thrown into a garbage dump in Kanpur and held hostage by residents who were angered by the unhygienic conditions prevailing in their area for long. He was freed after he pledged to get the locality cleaned. This should serve as a warning to administrators.

Introducing metros and flyovers does not make a city world class. Our planners forget that lack of a proper waste management infrastructure can play havoc with the safety and health of its citizenry. A well-etched long-term planning and policy measures do not seem to be a part of their agenda. Solid waste management poses a monumental challenge. Unless effectively managed, it may become a tinder box.

The author is an independent journalist
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