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Swachh Survekshan Survey 2017: Why Kerala must take its dismal ranking very seriously

Kerala claims to be the cleanest and greenest state in India, assuming exotic sobriquets for itself, but for the second year in a row, it hasn’t impressed the Union Government’s Swachh Survekshan Survey that lists India’s clean cities. What's disappointing is not just that none of its cities are in the top 10 or 20 this year, but that its three major municipal corporations have slipped from their 2016 positions, however dismal they had been even then.

For an undiscerning observer, this may look like an anomaly — that even an apparently clean boutique city such as Thiruvananthapuram is dirtier than Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. It’s also quite surprising that in the Swachh Survey, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh account for 50 of the cleanest cities in the country, while Kerala, known all over the world for its picture-perfect topography, has none. Those who had seen the survey last year may not be surprised at all because the state had fared badly then too with Thiruvananthapuram ranked at 40.

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

The listing in 2016 hadn’t evoked any major resentment in the state probably because people in the public sphere didn’t care as much as they do about the "Kerala model of development"; but being named and shamed for the second year in a row is bad news. A few more times, the bad name will stick and at some stage it will start hurting because the survey methodology has elements that assess the health of the institutional systems that are required to keep a city clean. Kerala doesn’t look good on that front.

Of the total 2,000 marks on offer, half go to data from municipal corporations of the cities surveyed. This is the most objective part of the survey and hence, the part with least limitations. And one look at the way it's broken down sees the mystery behind Kerala’s disappearance from the list of winners resolved: A bulk of the weightage goes to door-to-door collection of waste, sweeping, and
collection and transportation (40 percent); and processing and disposal of solid waste (20 percent). This is where the cities in Kerala fail because there is practically no solid waste management, let alone door-to-door collection and transportation.

For a few years now, the state has been in a crisis regarding its waste management. With its high population density and conversion of every bit of land into speculative real estate, it’s impossible to set up dumping grounds or waste-processing units. People don’t want them anywhere near their homes and an attempt by the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation to set up a waste-processing plant on the vast plot it owns on the outskirts of the city a few years ago had led to an uprising by people who alleged that it polluted their surroundings.

The city corporation in the capital has more or less withdrawn from waste collection and management and people are managing the disposal of waste on their own — some throw it on the streets and some give it to unregulated private operators who charge a hefty monthly fee. Although the city looks by and large trash-free in most of its tony areas, there are many dark spots that have become informal dumping grounds. The city's waterways are polluted and clogged, and beaches have become dirty. The highway to Kovalam, the most famous beach in the state, is littered with mounds of garbage.

With nearly 600 out of 1,000 marks completely skewed against them, the cities in Kerala are likely to be on the cleanliness blacklist for a long time. The remaining 1,000 marks is perceptional — 500 for observation-based data and and an equal share for citizen feedback. No methodologically vigilant observer can give Kerala cities good marks because behind their good looks hide a lot of trash. In terms of feedback, the same people who pollute are highly likely to be unhappy about their environment because traditionally they are more aware of their rights than their duties.

In fact, it’s an emerging crisis because no place in the world can sustain itself without institutionalised waste management. Voluntary efforts such as home-composting and recycling can reduce part of the burden, but not address the whole issue. The big effort should come from the civic authorities — they have to collect and process solid waste. If they close their eyes and push it back to the people, as they are doing in most parts of the state, it’s only a matter of time before it turns into a disaster like the 1994 plague in Surat. Many parts of the the state that once were free from major communicable diseases are today endemic to dengue, chikungunya and malaria. Hospital admissions and morbidity from infectious diseases are on a steady rise.

The previous chief minister Oommen Chandy used to lament that he didn’t have an appropriate model to emulate while the CPM tried alternative methods with some success in certain pockets such as Alappuzha. There is a general consensus that a state like Kerala cannot have a centralised model for waste management, but nobody has a clue as to how to develop a decentralised system.

There are interesting models across the world, however, the state apparently cannot find one.

What the governments should realise is that such models take time to develop. Curitiba in Brazil is an example.

Despite such adverse rankings, Kerala may carry on with its naturally-endowed green cover, monsoons, rivers and NGO rankings that list it as the cleanest in India for some more time, but what the survey results point out cannot be ignored: It’s about the apathy or inability of its governments (both at state and local levels) that can push the state into an irreversible ecological crisis and hence, kill part of its economy as well as the much famed quality of life of its people.

Updated Date: May 05, 2017 13:54 PM

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