In his 1960 exploration of eastern mysticism, The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler compared the smell of Bombay to that of “a wet smelly diaper” wrapped around his head. Four years later, VS Naipaul was so revulsed about the filth in India that he wrote in an Area of Darkness that “Indians defecate everywhere” - beside the railway tracks, on the beaches, on the hills, on the riverbanks and on the streets. “They never look for cover,” he said with absolute disgust.
India was smarter than Koestler and Naipaul — it promptly banned both the books.
When the South Asia correspondent of New York Times, Gardiner Harris, wrote on 29 May (Holding Your Breath in India) — that Delhi is an unliveable place because of pollution and that he left the city to safeguard his son’s health, the outrage was similar. There was no possibility of banning an article on the Internet, but angry Indians took to social media and slammed Harris for being an elitist expat. Some said while he was over-protective over his child, he had scant regard for the Indian children in Delhi who had no option but to live there, little realising that his voice was that of a frustrated father, who doesn’t have to put his family through the perils of living in a dirty city.
Harris wrote: “Foreigners have lived in Delhi for centuries, of course, but the air and the mounting research into its effects have become so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here. Similar discussions are doubtless underway in Beijing and other Asian megacities, but it is in Delhi — among the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth — where the new calculus seems most urgent.”
He hits where it hurts. The capital of a super power aspirant, a country which is projected to become the world’s third biggest economy in 2020, has been described as “among the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth”. He also goes on to add that out of the 25 worst polluted cities in the world, 13 are in India.
It’s remarkable that even after 50 years since Koestler and Naipaul refused to hold back their revulsion to the all-pervading filth in India, it still remains a humiliating truth that visitors find out the moment they set their foot in the country.
In his recent overseas tour, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that earlier Indians felt ashamed of being born in India, but now they feel proud. Do they? His point was political. He thought that the change of government in India makes its people proud. But in reality, Indians should still be ashamed because outsiders find their country too filthy to live in; the filth that has permeated every state of matter — solid, liquid, gas and perhaps even plasma. It doesn’t befit a modern nation that’s apparently raring to go.
What Koestler and Naipaul wrote in the sixties and what Harris wrote in 2015 are not anecdotal, but are borne out by facts. According to WHO, India accounts for 90 percent of open defecation in South Asia and 59 percent of the practice in the world. It also accounts for more than twice the number of open defecations of the 18 countries that come after it in the WHO list.
WHO also says that close to 100 million Indians don’t have access to improved sources of water, which is not surprising because our waterways are filled with filth. According to Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) 2011-12 annual report, about 60 percent of India’s water-sources (which are routinely monitored) have poor “bio-chemical oxygen demand”, an indicator of organic pollution, and about 68 percent have faecal coliform — bacteria from shit.
In other words, more than 60 percent of our water sources are polluted with organic waste and faecal matter. This happens because untreated sewage, faeces and other organic wastes are led into rivers and ponds that Indians draw their water from. Industrial waste and toxic substances that are dumped into them on an hourly basis make them lethal. All major Indian rivers are polluted by industrial effluents and untreated sewage. In its report, the Pollution Control Board even specifically mentions how under-capacity sewage treatment plants let out raw filth into the rivers at various places.
In terms of air quality, the principal concern of Harris in Delhi, 79 percent of metropolitan cities have very high levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are the main causes of air pollution. Among the four metros, the presence of particulate matter in Delhi is a well-known story and is obviously rising compared to others. But Delhi is not alone, many other cities, including small towns are asphyxiating in their own emissions.
Delhiites can be peeved because Harris picked on their city while the rest of urban India is no different. It’s only a matter of degree of criticality (air pollution levels are classified as low, medium, hight and critical). The fact of the matter is that urban India is rotting and is sinking in its own filth.
Can the Prime Minister’s boutique project of “Swatch Bharat” change this?
Absolutely not, because the socio-economic determinants of this environmental degradation are far deeper than what’s apparent. With more than 42 percent of its population living in 53 cities, India’s urbanisation is so skewed that it’s hard to provide a matching civic infrastructure and therefore untreated sewage will continue to flow into rivers, lakes, and open places. If the agriculture and rural employment continue to fail, it will get worse.
Without stopping open defecation, the spread of coliform and other parasites cannot be stopped. Without cracking down on crony-capitalists, including big corporates, the dumping of effluents into rivers and toxic gases into air will not stop. Without providing reliable public transport, the ambient air can never get clean.
And more importantly, all these are to be handled at the local level by the state governments and local bodies. Given the pathetic standards of governance and political priorities in some states, it’s a daunting task.
In the end, India’s filth is a metaphor for its overall ills that include poverty, inequality, castes, corruption, poor development policies and greed. It’s not a question of aesthetics, but a question of fundamental social change.
Updated Date: Jun 01, 2015 14:49 PM