Anil Kumar Sharma has taken a break from work to be trotted at as the Bhadreswar Municipality’s star witness for its efforts to transforming India. Yes, he says, the municipality has constructed a toilet for his family. Yes, he goes on, it is inside his home. Then, things start to go wrong. It turns out the toilet is being used as a storeroom. "Listen, we adjust," says a flustered Sharma. He doesn’t explain exactly how a room packed with bags and kitchen supplies manages to double as a toilet.
"This is a huge blot on us," says Prakash Goswami, vice-chairman of Bhadreswar Municipality, offering me a glass of water. He isn’t talking about Sharma’s behaviour. There are few things in life as welcome as a tall, cool drink of water on a hot day — but this one has emerged from the bowels of the sodden earth in what is officially India’s most shit-ridden city.
First prize for being India’s dirtiest city isn’t an honour Bhadreswar wants, and it’s working hard to lose it when new ratings are released this year.
Starting from Chittagong, in Bangladesh, the Grand Trunk Road runs through Hooghly district to its great journey towards Central Asia. There’s nothing grand about the Grand Trunk Road anymore, hedged in as it is by the rapid urbanisation of the small towns along the river with everyone from cattle, state transport buses, two-wheelers, hawkers to private cars jostling for space.
Bhadreswar is one such town which is remarkable for nothing except its filth.
The dirt sticks
The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), launched in 2014, aims for 100 percent open defecation-free (ODF) status by 2 October this year. Between 4 and 31 January of this year, Swachh Survekshan, an annual exercise conducted by the government that assesses rural and urban areas for their levels of cleanliness, was conducted. The results are expected later this year. Last year, Indore, like the year before, had topped the list to be declared as India’s cleanest city. And Bhadreswar, with a cumulative total of 448.33 points out of 4000, was the dirtiest in the category of cities with a population over 1,00,000.
Goswami likes to believe that the work of his municipality figures in "at least, the top five of West Bengal. So, the ranking, which we found out through newspaper reports, has been a huge jolt." In November 2017, when the government was about to start its survey, Bhadreswar Municipality’s then-chairman Manoj Upadhyay was shot dead. "It was a huge jolt — one which we are still recovering from. The survey, our feedback and visit from outside supervisors all took place during that time frame and unfortunately we missed it all," says chairman Proloy Chokroborty.
There are no visible garbage dumps though plenty of algae-covered water bodies. 'Posh' localities like the Government Colony, which even boasts of a 'swimming pool', are swept almost daily. "We generate 23 metric tonnes of waste everyday out of which nearly 3 percent goes into the composting bin," says Chandan Mahto from the municipality. The rest of it ends up in a 6-acre landfill. There hasn’t been any significant outbreak of a disease over the past five years.
In 2018's Swachh Survekshan, the focus expanded from ODF to include waste collection, solid waste management apart from building toilets and sanitation strategies. Local bodies have been tasked with handing over bins to residents for segregation apart from educating them on how to do it. In Bhadreswar, Firstpost is told that all 22 wards have been covered.
However, in the working-class neighbourhood in Telenipara, there are differing views. Anil Kumar Tanti says that while garbage collection takes place every day at 6 am on the dot, he is not aware of segregation. "We don’t sort our wet and dry waste. We haven’t been told about it." His neighbour Rajesh Sahu, however, says they do segregate after they were told about it.
At the composting site, which is on the same plot of land as the landfill, two women are sorting the waste with hand. It is designed like a cattle shed with different blocks some of which are meant for separating and the others for manure. The municipality has been selling the manure at Rs 3 per kilogram.
Misery, it is said, loves company. Nineteen out of the 25 dirtiest cities in India, according to the 2018 Survekshan, are in Bengal. The unscientific disposal of waste is considered to be one of the reasons why the state has performed badly as its landfills are near the end of their lifespan. The West Bengal Pollution Control Board’s annual report of 2016-17 says more than 8,600 tonnes of waste is generated daily in the state of which only 830 tonnes is processed. This has larger implications for public health.
West Bengal does have a better sanitation performance rate than the rest of the country with the total sanitation coverage around 65 percent. In 2014, the state launched Mission Nirmal Bangla, its own cleanliness drive, starting with open defecation. Three years later, the Hooghly district was declared open defecation free. In Bhadreswar, 35 community toilets have been built over the past one year and 2,533 in homes. But building toilets, surveys and results have shown, isn’t the same as toilet usage. The National Rural Sanitation Survey, conducted by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, revealed that till March 2018, 77 percent of rural households had access to toilets and usage was more than 90 percent for individuals in those households. However, according to the National Family Health Survey, more than half of India’s rural households are still defecating in the open.
"If you look at the parameters they wanted to judge us by; it was impossible. We don’t have biometric attendance in place or GPS trackers for our dumpsters. These are factors which have been introduced over the past two years and West Bengal did not participate then. They wanted citizen feedback through the app. Many people here aren’t even aware of it," says Shisham Jaiswal of the Champdani Municipality. Champdani has started waste segregation only in a few wards. "But we were declared ODF in 2016. The rankings are political," Jaiswal says. It is a sentiment echoed across the state albeit in hushed tones.
In 2014, India had the largest number of people defecating in the open in the world. It has been directly linked to why Indian children are the shortest in the world apart from other health issues. Since then, SBM has expanded its scope to look at other equally pressing issues, but its biggest challenge, according to Avni Kapur of the Centre for Policy Research, is sustaining itself: "Ensuring the continuance of a practice like usage of toilets across seasons is as important as developing a sewage treatment system." Funding remains a problem. On paper, SBM has a hefty budget, 62,000 crore, but when split across the country, it doesn’t amount to much. "Projects like these need prioritisation and with the funds allocated to them, municipalities can focus on only one or two projects," says Dhruba Dasgupta, project director, Society for Creative Opportunities and Participatory Ecosystems, Kolkata.
Hooghly has been a jute industry hub. It is here that the mills, started in the 19th century, laid the foundation for industrialisation, leading to urbanisation and migration. The presence of several European powers like the Dutch and the French who established colonies like Serampore and Chandernagar contributed to the growth of the industry. This also led to large-scale migration. Bhadreswar still has two operational mills, Victoria and Northbrook, which employ nearly 10,000 of the town’s 1,11,477 people. The majority of these workers live in neighbourhoods that can be classified little better as slums. According to the 2011 Census, there are more than 13,000 slums in the city in which 61,528 people reside. Pinky Baidya, 26, lives in "jute mill quarters" as she calls them. "Our neighbourhood was very dirty. There weren’t any toilets and the place was like an open garbage dump. Things have improved considerably over the past one year though there are still stray instances of people not using the toilets."
"Our target date for 100 percent ODF is March 31, 2019, with a huge emphasis on access to safe toilets," says Hooghly Zilla Parishad deputy secretary Hemanto Bose. "Be it segregation or dissuading the use of plastic, we have been working hard at the gram panchayat level," Bose adds. He cites instances of government schools in villages where washrooms were kept locked leading to more and more girls staying home during their periods than risk the embarrassment of asking the principal for the keys. "We have had to work a lot on changing attitudes."
But Bose’s claim is only for the rural areas. Municipality activities are not controlled by them, he says. "We only release funds to them. Political will is the engine of their activities." According to official records, 1,36,95,144 has been released to the Bhadreswar Municipality since 2016-17 for toilet construction.
Champdani is the municipality next to Bhadreswar that fared a little better than its sister town in the SBM rankings, coming in at 468. Over here, unlike Bhadreswar, there are more garbage dumps and clogged drains. Angus Maidan is crowded with not just children playing football, but also dogs vying for scraps. As Mohd Alam, a jute mill worker, says dismissively, "There are more dogs than people around here on most days."
Alam has never heard of Swachh Bharat Mission.
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