"Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change" | Change from within
For a civilisation accustomed to dirt and accepting of disease, change can only materialise once realised within; explains Vishnu Makhijani
“The effort to clean India will take a little more than to simply pick up the broom and start sweeping” – this is the grim message of Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change (Pan McMillan) by management consultant Ankur Bisen who has thought and researched about India’s sanitation problems and possible solutions while working in diverse fields such as affordable housing, food, retailing, urban and rural consumption clusters, resource recovery and consumer products with an India-centric focus.
“Generations have lived their entire conscious lives in the company of dirt and thus their minds are conditioned to accept dirty surroundings as the status quo. Such a society cannot fight for a superior reference point on sanitation where none exists in the mind in the first place,” Bisen contends in the 571-page scholarly tome which, through stories, anecdotes and analysis of events, examines the intertwined problems of urban planning, governance and legislation, and institutional and human capacity building.
Such a society cannot be reasoned with to feel dogmatic about cleanliness about the basic needs of healthcare, food and employment, the author notes, adding: “It is wishful thinking to wait for an awakening of Indian society to fix the broken waste-management system.”
Noting that cleaner societies of today were nudged toward a clean living rather than citizens expressing their demands
for a clean living and the state working toward it, Bisen states: “An awakened society as a prelude to clean living is even more of a far-fetched dream in the case of India because the notion of sanitation is burdened with the unique challenge of social prejudice.”
By this, the author means that the sanitation challenge “exposes our tall claims of equality which refuse to uplift waste-management jobs and bring them up
to the stature of the perceived ‘superior’ jobs”.
“It exposes our democratic credentials that supposedly champion cooperative federalism but assign the job of disposing the aftermath of the consumption binge of our aspiring nation to the weakest member of the Indian state,” the book argues.
Indian society will never come to full boil over this “fractured response” toward sanitation delivery. On the contrary, it will simmer perpetually in remote corners and hidden alleyways, one death or one failure at a time.
“Contaminated water and soil will cull a few thousand vulnerable human lives every year. The rancid air will weaken the respiratory systems of millions. Methane emissions will alter the weather patterns over decades. A few thousand sanitation workers losing their lives cleaning sewers will create dissenting murmurs and occasional outburst but they do not have the shock value of a mob protesting a piece of art or expression, presumably due to their inability to create mass angst, hurt collective sentiments and offend the pride of a sizeable populace,” Bisen maintains.
Centuries of prejudice that has made Indian society biased towards the notion of cleanliness has no parallel in the world, the book states, adding: “Dirty homes are not acceptable but dirty public places are fine. The inner sanctum of temples must be clean but the filth and garbage piled up outside do not bother the priests and followers alike.”
Bisen also points to one other area of major concern.
“An omen of the trap into which the Indian state falls repeatedly, treating symptoms of a problem as the problem itself, is its failure to clean its rivers, especially the sacred river Ganga,” the author writes, adding that in February 2017, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) pulled up the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) for wasting public resources and not doing a proper job of cleaning the river, the irony was hard to miss.
“The NGT pointed to the lack of coordination among different state agencies and their inaction on preventive measures. But the creation of the NMCG itself manifests India’s misguided approach toward sanitation.”