Book excerpt: Ankur Bisen traces India’s continuing sanitation challenge, linking to its historical and cultural roots in his maiden effort

The book introduces the challenge of sanitation to the young India with an honest confession that the previous generation has goofed it up and that they have an opportunity to start on a clean slate

FP Staff January 25, 2020 18:11:12 IST
Book excerpt: Ankur Bisen traces India’s continuing sanitation challenge, linking to its historical and cultural roots in his maiden effort
  • The Narendra Modi government's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission is the Centre's dream of a clean and hygienic India

  • Ankur Bisen, Senior Vice President of the Retail and Consumer Products division at Technopak Advisors focusses on this Clean India Mission program of the government in his maiden book titled, Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change

  • The book introduces the challenge of sanitation to young India with an honest confession that the previous generation has goofed it up and that they have an opportunity to start on a clean slate

The Narendra Modi government's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission is the Centre's dream of a clean and hygienic India. Launched on 2 October 2014, the program focusses on a neat and cleaner India. According to a report, the government mobilised huge resources for information, education and communication for the program. The cash expenditure by the government, private sector, and the development community is estimated to be between Rs 3,500-4,000 crore in five years since the programme's launch, according to a report by consultancy firm Dalberg Advisors.

Of this cash spend, around 20 percent was spent by the erstwhile Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, around 35 percent by the state sanitation departments, around 25 percent by other government ministries, and around 20 percent by the private sector and the development sector collectively, said IANS quoting the report.

Ankur Bisen, Senior Vice President of the Retail and Consumer Products division at Technopak Advisors focussed on this Clean India Mission program of the government in his maiden book titled, Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change. The cover picture, which is very familiar to any one living in India, of a ragpicker walking amidst garbage sets the tone of the book and its contents. The picture stands out surprisingly for the happiness seen on the ragpicker's face. The setting sun in the backdrop highlights the plastic bags, the empty foil packages and other filth lying around. 

In the introduction to the book, Bisen talks of the impact of law with regard to sanitation in India and abroad while referring to two unrelated events——one that occurred in the United Kingdom and the other back home in India. In 8 chapters, he delineates the problem of sanitation, its causes, and more importantly provides solutions.

The plot uses sanitation as a reference point to trace India’s social, cultural and urban history of the last 1,500 years. It takes the reader through this journey to discover root causes for India’s perpetual struggle with sanitation. In doing so, Bisen makes the reader confront the real reasons for India’s sanitation struggle.The book demystifies many issues for their linkages with sanitation. For a mainstream reader of non-fiction, this is one the most refreshing aspect of the book. For instance, Bisen's take on India’s urban planning approach and its resultant outcome on the sanitation mess is an engaging read. It takes us through the government's flawed approach to building cities that is exclusionist at the core and how this approach perpetually yields dirty outcome in the form of slums, illegal living, sparse public spaces and chaotic designs.

Book excerpt Ankur Bisen traces Indias continuing sanitation challenge linking to its historical and cultural roots in his maiden effort

Book cover.

The narrative on the history and politics of slum living in India is an eye-opener. The author explains how the exclusionist city creates slums in the first place and is the real culprit rather than the slum dwellers. Therefore, it suddenly makes sense when the book makes a strong case for an urban planning framework that can imagine inclusive designs for cleaner outcome and offers interesting possibilities. 

Throughout the book, the author references India’s approaches with that of the clean countries in the world and that allows the reader to keep comparatives in mind to form opinions and views. It creates arguments where global comparatives need to be followed and where India can branch out to chart its own path.

Bisen's efforts makes for a bold read because it offers counter solutions to the current status quo or suggests frameworks to seek one. However, a word of caution. Wasted is packed with facts, figures, history and needs patience. The subject and the author is not a quick-read though it could serve as a good reference to dip into on the subject of sanitation in India. It also appears to be repetitive at places but its easy read compensates for these minor irritants.

The book’s big contribution is its intellectual assessment of the issue of sanitation that is often trivialised in India under the garb of caste identity, photo-ops or restrictive scope. Liberating this important issue from these parochial tendencies, weaving a holistic picture of the sanitation challenge and putting out precise solutions that are needed for intellectual criticism and debate is what makes it a compelling read.

Wasted could not have been better-timed for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that we all dream to live in one day. It introduces the challenge of sanitation to the young India with an honest confession that the previous generation has goofed it up and that they have an opportunity to start on a clean slate. And ends with a firm tongue-in-cheek comment about how the effort at cleaning may take take more than picking up the broom and start sweeping.  

Excerpt from the book:

Chapter 3: Urban Planning

Urban planners get to play God: urban planners take decisions on behalf of citizens decades before they are even born. If people drive to work or use public transport, if the city gets water logged during the rainy season, if the motorways are choked in peak traffic hours, if you can have a picnic with your family in a neighborhood park or feel unsafe to even allow your children to play outdoors, if you can cycle or drive to work with equal ease or feel captive by your transportation choices, if the city’s skyline is dotted with pretty houses or covered with unsightly slums; are all a direct outcome of urban planners’ work decades ago. The inhabitants of today are merely the consumers of the fait accomplice of that work.

Bad urban design decisions can go undiscovered for decades, and are rarely ascribed as the villains for human suffering or ecological imbalances of cities. If an urbanite fears for his life from vector borne diseases, if she spends half of the day in commute, if she is forced to live near perpetual stench, if children yearn for open parks and fields to play in, if social functions are a bane rather than joyous, if the family members are charred to death for getting trapped in a simple house fire and if bickering over sewage and parking issues ends up in a bloodbath within the family, perhaps the urban planning calls that the city’s planners took on your behalf decades ago are to blame. Terrorists produce a measurable outcome of misery that creates mass shock. But, the sufferers of bad urban planning calls are no different from frogs that are put in a vessel of water, which is slowly put on the boil. Initially, they enjoy the warmth and become numb, but before they know it the water begins to boil and it is too late for the frogs to jump out alive. An Indian urbanite forced to breathe in foul air or live in perpetual filth, face chaotic traffic puts his mental health in question, wade through sludge and garbage on the way to work and silently pray that his undiagnosed fever is not a new strain of the virus are all ‘slow boil’ moments that are silently cooking him alive because because Indian urban planners played the wrong kind of gods.

Cities in pre-modern times came into existence as an outcome of an immediate need of the respective kingdoms—armed conflicts, tax collection, administration, hobbies of the royalty. These towns housed people who were directly or indirectly involved in the smooth functioning of the kingdom. Rome in Europe, Kannuaj in South Asia, Nanjing in China are a few examples. Almost all major cities of Rajasthan were extensions of the Rajputs’ seats of power. Cities of Bijapur and Ahmadnagar in Deccan hosted political, security, recreational needs of Qutb Shah dynasty and so did Vijayanagar (present-day Hampi) that was an expression of the grandeur of the empire of the Sangama dynasty.

Cross-border trade also gave birth to new cities. Though national borders were loosely defined and frequently changed form and shape, people traveled in search of markets for their produce, craft, or skills. Cities on the map of the silk routes owe their emergence to cross-border trade. Today’s cities of Alleppo, Tehran, Tashkent, Almaty, Kabul, Quetta, Patna, and Urumqi, among others, were all part of the erstwhile Silk Route that extended from present-day China to the Middle East and Central Asia.

The post-industrialization world drastically altered the purpose of cities in a short span of time. Within a decade, the city of Detroit in North America transformed from a sleepy hamlet into the largest ship-building center in the region in the nineteenth century. The population of Paris grew almost six times between 1800 and 1900, whereas it had just doubled between 1500 and 1800. Cities emerged from the new wave of human migration and acquired expansive overtones at explosive rates. Industrialization was also the time when the world saw drastic changes in the political establishments.

Europe tilted toward state-sponsored public housing, where local bodies could commission integrated urban redevelopment plans and plug holes that had emerged from the haphazard growth of their cities. This push toward mass formal housing had a direct impact on sanitation. One bold urban planning initiative that proved to be a game changer in sanitation was the 1919 Housing Act of the UK, the brainchild of David Lloyd George, the then prime minister.

Essentially, three questions became the central theme to visions of these cities—the relationship between dirty surroundings and public health; the distance traveled by people from their place of work to their residence, which lead to informal living (slums); and the balance between urbanized humans and nature. These themes represented a significant departure from the pre-industrialized world, where cities were largely manifestations of the monarch’s whims. These questions represented the common man’s purpose in the city and became the lynchpin of future urban planning exercises. The common man became the central character to the urban plans and acquired a powerful political narrative at the start of the twentieth century, and urban planners received patronage from the political establishment. Cities, particularly in the US, became synonymous with their planners—George Kessler with Kansas City, Daniel Burnham with Chicago, John Nolen with Madison and San Diego, Doc Maynard with Seattle. They also started to acquire a political stature of their own, one of the most famous being the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. This was a great triumph for urban planning and that set just the right tempo for Western cities to become symbols of cleanliness in the coming decades.

By the time the world war II was over, the science of urban planning had gained nearly five decades of experience in designing and re-designing cities in the industrialized world. Urban planners by then didn’t restrict themselves to being viewed as technocrats but considered themselves social scientists armed with the technical knowledge to design a city. They viewed themselves as guardians of the interests of the common man, philosophers or champions of equality. Philosophy, ecology, public health, economics and art constantly inspired them to think about the city in the present and in the future. They even took political stances to dovetail these views into their design plans. Concepts like libertinism, socialism, free-will, and environmental protection had started to make way into design plans of cities in the western world much before World War II.

The political statement of the city design notwithstanding, urban planners in the First World recognized the importance of public housing as an integral part of their city plans. Until public housing is at the heart of the urban plans, the city will remain a growing swath of slums, was the overpowering thought among urban planners. Planners also recognized important causation between public transportation (mass transit systems, footpaths included) and the city’s ability to keep itself clean. Dovetailing economic activity (anticipated job generation source) with housing, provisioning for public places, and balancing ecology within the city were other important tenets recognized for their role in determining a city’s clean or dirty future.

Colonial rulers developed Indian cities in the post-industrial world. Prior to this, cities were primarily an extension of the monarch’s seat of power or were trading or religious hubs, as was the case in the rest of the world. Some monarchs were visionaries and had a penchant for town planning, like Sawai Man Singh II, who passionately designed and built Jaipur, and gave it broad roads, pavements, and public places. During the colonial rule, creation of cantonment areas birthed new cities like Bengaluru, Meerut, Ambala, Kanpur, Secunderabad, Trichy, and so on. Retail and commerce expanded the urban influence of these cities into neighboring rural areas. Cities then emerged as a direct outcome of being seats of power for the British, to rule over India’s vast land mass. Kolkata, Chennai, and New Delhi acquired urban character by virtue of serving this purpose. Slowly these cities developed a character of their own and expanded during the colonial rule. By the start of the twentieth century, trading and commerce in textile and commodities grew and cities like Nagpur, Coimbatore, Ahmedabad, Ludhiana, and Mumbai emerged as important industrial hubs.

India inherited an infantile experience base to design and build cities unlike the First World, that had by now garnered decades of experience in this regard. India lay at such a juncture that even its independent existence was shrouded in doubt. The strong rural leanings of the political establishment also played its part in undermining the connect between urban planning and nation building. In the the 1940s and 1950s, planning cities was of much less importance than issues of communal harmony, integration of states into the Union, land reforms, farmer rights, and green revolution.

We know that the infant Indian democracy rebooted local civic bodies and sucked out much of their autonomy. The local bodies savored tax revenues from land transactions because it was the only significant act to testify to their autonomous existence. But in this autonomy was mere lip service to the cause of the strong grass-root democratic leanings. The defectively designed local civic bodies quickly interpreted supply of real estate as a revenue-maximizing tool. Thus, the weakest member (local civic bodies) of the Indian state held the most sway over the urban planning agenda and suffocated the process of designing Indian cities effectively. Urban planning designed cities to serve this primary purpose so as to maximize revenue for local bodies. This unidimensional view misguided the urban planning exercise and restricted its scope. Unlike the First World, where urban planning became a champion of individual rights and of the state’s duty toward the environment, urban planning in India became hostage to funding the existence of the weakest member of India’s infant democratic set-up. This arrangement kept urban planners from imbibing and acting upon issues that were soon poised to cause trouble to urban India. This unidimensional view about Indian cities was not totally unreasonable given the context of that time. Back then these cities were just big enough to house the “privileged” who willingly lived there.

Urban planning was fixated with the assumption that Indian cities are homogenous clusters comprising people in formal occupations. These homes delivered through plotted developed and “public” housing programs were freely changing hands and going to the highest bidder, resulting in a widening chasm between need and ownership and did no more than to position housing as a speculative real estate asset in urban India. This is the point when Indian cities started to get sucked into an abyss of informality. The unequal economic chasm between different regions of the country, the heterogeneity of inhabitants who arrived in cities, and the rapid rise of cities as economic hotspots needed a segmented mass housing response on a massive scale.

Here is the thing with informality in a city: The more it proliferates the more it becomes indispensable to the formal part of the city. Its existence may fall flat on the barometer of human dignity, but human dignity be dammed. The factor that contributed to the growth of slums in Mumbai was its economic value to the existence of the formal part of the city. The Mumbai slum metamorphosed into a self-sufficient set-up within a formal city. On the face, it may appear to be a filthy congregation of cheap labor force, but its very existence is the foundation upon which the formal city of Mumbai exists today. The informal city artificially suppresses labor costs, allows local government bodies to shun their responsibilities toward them and provide supporting infrastructure to the formal part of the city to thrive as an assisted economy.

Informality lives in city spaces that are invisible to urban plans. It is not entitled to receive anything from the formal city—access to waste management, parks, schools, clean water, roads, electricity. But urban plans cannot stop the forces of economics from manifesting themselves in physical forms. It offers support to the formal city’s comfortable existence for an economic value that scores miserably on contracts but high on cost competitiveness. Mumbai’s slums manifest low-cost labor force in informal jobs, such as masonry, handicraft, carpentry, that are paid without any tax to the state, job security or adherence to minimum standards of workplace safety to the employee—all proxies for fractured contracts. But, they encompass low-cost labor force - a maid at home, a security guard at the gate, a courier boy in a logistic company, a construction worker on a building site, a cook on a road side eatery and make the city living of formal inhabitants surprisingly comfortable and affordable.

But why should the state go after such informality when its presence in the city checked so many boxes? A cheap alternative to a more formal solution that the state failed to designed, one which could challenge the cost competitiveness without compliance offered by informal living. Why should the formal inhabitants of the city rebel against the existence of informal living, when the informal living makes their lives in private spaces cheaper, more comfortable and less inconvenient? Informal living may be dirty, miserable and ugly but it provides efficient alternatives sans taxes, regulations and dignity. So what if it has some unsavory side effects like undignified human existence without sewage, stress on environment, stink, child labor and lack of utilities.

The miserable urbanization story of Delhi resulted in a boom in the sleepy satellite town of Gurugram (earlier Gurgaon) in Haryana, at a stone’s throw from Delhi. Gurugram sensed an opportunity in the paucity of real-estate supply in Delhi and rolled out development rights to developers at a pace never before seen in the history of India. They swiftly went ahead to create commercial and residential real estate that was required to bolster the brisk pace of India’s economic growth at that time. But this also created a gold rush of opportunities which eventually blinkered the urban planners of Gurugram and set them up for failure in their own ways.

From the 1970s, political dividend from India’s urbanism thrived on its challenges of informal living, land acquisition, and urban expansion. Instead of seeking the underlying reasons for these problems, delivering instant remedies became a more convenient form of quick wins. If a thousand families encroached upon a public land and started living on it, the political narrative was better served in “regularizing” this arrangement rather than to seek the reasons for this informal settlement to come up and create formal residential alternatives for them. The latter was a long-haul approach that demanded research, policy intervention, and a wider consensus. Even if one section of the political establishment took a principled stand, it opened an arbitrage opportunity for a counter political narrative that promised instant gains. Therefore, political sponsorship on urban issues started to get centered around quick fixes: ….The question of use of space in a city requires imagination to appreciate interdependent human behavior within the city, the knowhow to interpret the impact of technology on societal evolution, and the intellect to understand the deficits that plague the current urban set up and come up with the best solutions. In fact, the notion of “best” is also nebulous.

Until the Indian political narrative start to hold urban planning in high reverence and demand visionary standards, cities will continue to be mediocre and bad sanitation will always be a natural outcome of this mediocrity. The failure of local bodies to fumigate a locality, lift garbage from a neighborhood, let car parking mushroom on a busy street, or remove illegal encroachments are merely failures to address symptoms of mediocre urban plans. The political sponsorship need to own up and convey to the franchise that the roads in the city are bad because the urban planning of the city was messed up few decades ago. It will need to announce that the repeated outbreaks of vector borne diseases in the city are not because of the lack of fumigation but because of mediocre design plans that need an overhaul. It will need to make a statement that the daily struggles of urban citizens regarding commute, dirty surroundings and congested neighborhoods requires a redevelopment approach of the city that will add to the misery for the present generation but will ensure a healthy and inspired living for future generations. The prospective local councilors will need to sell such visions when they seek support from voters who live hand to mouth and are not even sure if they will get the next day’s water supply. The prospective mayor of the city will have to develop the financing plan for the funding of this vision. People who dream of becoming lawmakers will need to think about the kind of legislations required to make this vision a reality. The successful transition of the political establishment towards this narrative will determine whether or not Indian cites become clean in the future. How is that for a political challenge?

Sensible solutions need to appreciate the nature of different ecosystems that drive various economic activities in the city. Retailing needs real estate and sales staff; commercial offices need security, housekeeping, transport; Taxis need parking, repair and maintenance etc. For a productive and clean discharge of economic activities, urban plans will need account for every component, big and small, of these ecosystems. It means design interpretations in keeping with the nature of various economic activities. In the case of building industrial zones, industrial development policy can easily mandate the factories to share the cost for building formal residences for its staff as a precondition. This can start to quantify affordable housing units, parks, schools, health centers, and markets near the industrial zone both for the currently employed workers and for the estimated future increase in human density. A simple pursuit to reduce commute time that requires a design response of interdependent solutions can yield cleaner outcomes.

Commute times are also reduced by democratizing transport choices – an idea fine-tuned by clean cities in the world in inspiring ways. …..It is a visual treat to witness dedicated cycling lanes that allow hundreds in the city of Amsterdam to cycle to work in the lap of safety and calm. It is no wonder that there is a striking commonality between cleanliness in a city and its democratic approach to transport design for human movement.

The agenda of urban planning for Indian cities is comprehensive with multiple goals: environment and ecology, public and private health, effective local governance, equality, and commuting time. If urban planners were to choose only one unit to measure the progress on all of these goals, then the cleanliness of the city should be that unit because it symbolizes a triumph on all these parameters. A clean Indian city will have no informal living and has achieved inclusion through community living. It will have planned all human movement and created a safe environment for one and all. It will have vibrant public spaces that symbolize its preserved heritage and provide a healthy environment to its citizens. But it should begin with recognizing the unfortunate fact that the current urban planning approach is calibrated for failure. The default setting of the urban-design approach spews waste, informality, and congestion. It should also accept that the problem is humungous, resources scarce, and intellect meager.

Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change

Author: Ankur Bisen

Publisher: Pan Macmillan India

Pages: 584

Price: Rs 699

Updated Date:

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