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From British Raj to Swaraj, Garbage Woes Inundate India


SEPTEMBER 21, 2018

By Naresh Minocha, Consulting Editor

"INSUFFICIENCY of dustbins tends to encourage the common practice of throwing litter and rubbish from upper windows on to the paved back spaces below and to intensify the lack of sanitation. Even in the sewered areas, sewage stagnates as a result of blockage of drains and traps with refuse, and the areas at the backs of the lodging-houses seems be seldom clean. The conditions which prevail indicate the need for more stringent municipal administration".

Anyone might wrongly take this as 'mohalla negative news' played up by Modi critics to spoil the ongoing social media-empowered Swachhta Hi Seva (SHS) campaign.

The fact is that the Quote is from the 1931 report of Royal Labour Commission (RLC). And the description relates to Rangoon (now Yangon), which was then part of British India.

What RLC said about the rot bedeviling Indian cities is far more relevant and alarming than what it was in 1930s. British India's concern over the insanitary conditions is documented in other such reports and laws too as we would find later in this column.

Anyone, with an iota of respect for facts, can drive through any city and any village to find that official claims on Swachhta are a mere puff. Millions of corridors are splashed with pan spits. Countless window slabs and similar structures are littered with broken glasses and construction materials even in decent apartment buildings.

And the monumental proof of sanitation crisis is Delhi's world-famous Ghazipur waste dump. It spans over 70 acres with maximum height of 62 metres. In November 2017, East Delhi Municipal Corporation sought expression of interest from specialized agencies to cope with fires that erupt at this landfill.

Delhi's two other such dumps are also a disgrace. North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has minced no words in articulating garbage crisis.

In a recent document, NDMC says: "the Sanitary Land Fill (SLF), Bhalswa is a dumping site and it not a secured Sanitary Land Fill site. At present, about 2000 MT of MSW per day is being received at this site …."

SLF site got exhausted long time back and the height of fill at present is about 40 metres. NDMC has no option but to keep operating SLF for want of alternative site.

As admitted by NDMC, "the present site is being continued, by raising the level of filling above the general ground level. Things have now come to such a pass that it is now getting difficult with each passing day to operate the present land fill site but having no other option this site has to be continued".

South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) is also not wanting in speaking truth on Swachhta. It says: "The Okhla SLF site is spread in an area of approximately 40 acres and the present height of the same is 50-60 metres against the allowable 20-30 mtrs as per SWM Rules, 2016".

The story is similar for many other cities. Recall Mumbai's Deonar landfill fire that kept Fire Brigade engaged for one week in 2016.

"India will go down under the garbage one day " bemoaned a Supreme Court Bench during March 2018. The Bench observed: "days are not far when garbage mounds at Ghazipur landfill here will match the height of Qutub Minar and a red beacon will have to be used to ward off planes ".

The apex court has been flashing ground truth on Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in an ongoing public interest petition on garbage management filed in 2015.

In August, the apex court noted that piling of garbage on Delhi's roads had become alarming. Taking note of a housing colony's objection to municipal authorities' move to open a new landfill in Delhi, the Bench wondered why the garbage should not be dumped in front of official residence of Delhi Lieutenant Governor.

Amidst so much of filth and stink, SBM continues to be Band Baja Barat mode. As many as 3,034 cities have been declared open defecation free (ODF) and process to declare cities garbage-free has been set in motion.

Both ODF and garbage-free cities concepts defy common sense. The concepts conflict with Swachh Bharat's objective of changing citizens' filth-prone behaviour. The change is being attempted through awareness and virtually zero penalties for non-compliance.

How can behaviour change by mere construction of toilets, without checking their functioning, accessibility, usage and durability? How can littering stop without shaming, naming and penalizing offenders?

Have taxi drivers stopped spitting pan chew on the road while driving or waiting at traffic signal? Has throwing of junk food trash stopped from luxury cars?

Populism-obsessed Government shoul drealize that Swachhata would remain a distant dream forever as long it avoids cracking the whip on litter-bugs& toilet-averse villagers. It should take a leaf from ancient India's governance classic Kautilya's Arthashastra.

It says: "Whoever excretes faeces in places of pilgrimage, reservoirs of water, temples, and royal buildings shall be punished with fines rising from one pana and upwards in the order of the offences; but when such excretions are due to the use of medicine or to disease no punishment shall be imposed".

Arthashastra adds: "Whoever throws inside the city the carcass of animals such as a cat, dog, mongoose, and a snake shall be fined 3 panas; of animals such as an ass, a camel, a mule, and cattle shall be fined 6 panas; and human corpse shall be punished with a fine of 50 panas".

All news about setbacks and challenges are negativism for events-obsessed SBM patrons. They don't react to countless reports of toilets that exist on paper, toilets that have broken within few months of their construction and toilets that are used as stores. All such issues have been well documented by Parliament Standing Committees (PSCs) and the media.

PSC, in its recent report on SBM-Gramin, for instance, says: "the sanitation coverage figures seemed to be more on Paper but the actual progress at the ground level is very lethargic".

It adds: "Even a village with 100 % household toilets cannot be declared ODF till all the inhabitants start using them. The main thrust of the Government should be on the usage of toilets as mere building of toilets alone is not sufficient for the realization of actual vision of an ODF country".

Reverting back to RLC, it observed: "The areas occupied by the working classes in Ahmedabad present pictures of terrible squalor. Nearly 92% of the houses are one-roomed; they are badly built, in sanitary, ill-ventilated are overcrowded, whilst water supplies are altogether inadequate and latrine accommodation is almost entirely wanting. Resulting evils are physical deterioration, high infant mortality and a high general death rate ".

RLC, which is also known as Whitney Commission, made shocking observations on Mumbai's chawls and unhygienic habitations in other cities.

Referring to the country's urban and industrial areas in general, RLC observed: "Neglect of sanitation is often evidenced by heaps of rotting garbage and pools of sewage, whilst the absence of latrines enhance general pollution of air and soil. Houses, many without plinths, windows and adequate ventilation, usually consist of a single small room, the only opening being a doorway often too low to enter without stooping."

It continued: "In order to secure some privacy, old kerosene tins and. gunny bags, are used to form screens further restrict the entrance of light and air. In dwelling such as these, human beings are born, sleep and eat, live and die".

This observation is very much applicable at present to slums that have grown faster than the GDP under each successive regime. The slums that have cropped after Modi Government came to power speak volumes about SBM, housing for all and smart city slogans. No wonder Government gets away with questions on slums by claiming non-availability of latest data.

Recall of British India documents that contain references to sanitation& hygiene is required to put in right perspective the idea of Swachh Bharat. This is not to belittle Mahatma Gandhi's concern for cleanliness that might have developed as part of his personality from childhood. Nobody is questing Mr. Modi's brilliant marketing of idea of Swachh Bharat.

Reminiscing of post-Independence initiatives on cleanliness is equally important to correct the wrong impression created by Mr. Modi and his fans that hardly anything was done before he came to power. More of this a bit later.

First have a peek of Raj-era documents. The word 'sanitation' appears 40 times in RLC report. It appears 53 times in 2 nd volume (recommendations) of the Health Survey & Development Committee. Popularly referred to as Bhore committee, it submitted its report during 1946.

Similarly, 'Sanitation' appears 10 times in the full report of Royal Commission on Agriculture (RCA) that gave its report in 1928.

Indian Plague Commission's (IPC's) 1902 report too focused on sanitation, which led to a slew of regulations. These were complied into Bengal Plague Manual in 1903. IPC pitched for "strenuous efforts for the general improvement of the sanitary condition of life in India".

Even the report on Indian Cattle Plagues published in 1871did not miss the importance of sanitation.

It observed: "Tapeworms, whether they occur in the mature or immature forms in man or animals, especially epidemic, cannot be looked on in any other light than indices of bad sanitation in the towns or districts where they are prevalent".

All such reports thus constituted India's first institutional call for Swachh Bharat, though British rulers did not coin any such fancy name.

The Indian political narrative on the Independence is built on the hatred for British rulers. It should, however, not mask the good work done by them.

Like Mr. Modi, RCA also realized the need for marketing of the idea of Sanitation. It thus underlined the importance of "health and sanitation propaganda" for villagers.

Composting, a component of SBM, also figured in RCA. The Report stated: "we are impressed by the results achieved in the Gurgaon district of the Punjab (Haryana didn't exist at that time), where many villages have, as a direct consequence of propaganda, adopted the practice of depositing in pits all village sweepings and refuse, along with a proportion of cowdung".

It continued: "The effects on crops to which such manure has been applied, and on the sanitation and general amenities of the villages, were most marked. There is no reason why efforts on similar lines should not be made in other parts of the country".

According to Abridged report of RAC, "Sanitation, in any accepted sense of the word, is practically non-existent. The public latrine is too often the river bank or the margin of a tank. This predisposes to hookworm infestation and to the spread of all diseases incidental to a polluted water supply".

With periodic hammering on the need for sanitation and enactment of several laws, British Raj passed the sanitation baton to Independent India. One Raj-era law deserves recall: Bombay Municipal Act makes it incumbent on Municipal Corporation to reclaim "unhealthy localities", remove "noxious vegetation" and abate "all nuisances".

After Independence, the Government did neglect sanitation and hygiene. This might have been due to pressing need to attend to tsunami of Partition woes and challenges.

In the fifties, the Government did invest funds on environmental hygiene & sanitation under the accounting head 'Health and Rural Sanitation'. The allocations were woefully inadequate when assessed against the requirements.

Had Nehru Government embraced Bhore Committee Report as Gita of Vikas, the country would have been saved from the curse of demographic disaster, squalor, malnutrition and countless miseries.

Mr. Modi's contention, that Parliament never earlier discussed Swachhata,needs to be corrected. It might not have had full-fledged debate on the issue in the same way it debated inflation or unemployment.

A glance through limited availability of Parliament records show that certain MPs did voice their concern on this issue over the decades. It is here pertinent to quote Dr. W. S. Barlingay from his speech on 2nd five-year plan in RajyaSabha on 6th September 1956.

Dr Barlingay stated: If there is a proper system of drainage in this country, if there is a proper sanitation system and underground sewerage, if there is proper disposal of night-soil and all the rest of it - this is not merely important for the sake of some superficial values like cleanliness, it goes much deeper than that because it alters the very structure of our society".

He added: "If you devote proper attention to this problem of disposal of the night-soil, than with one stroke of the pen you can solve two different problems, namely the problem of food production in this country and the problem of sanitation, and also, if I may say so, the problem of the fundamental social values in this country".

In the eighties, toilets were built in rural areas under the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP),Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme (RLEGP), Indira Awas Yojana and Centrally Sponsored Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP).

The last programme, launched by Rajiv Gandhi Government, is considered as the country's first nationwide initiative on sanitation. CRSP was restricted by Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government as Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). UPA Government reinvented it as Nirman Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in 2012 with the objective of providing access to sanitation to all rural households by October 2022.

Modi Government restructured NBA into SBM with the objective of attaining a 100% Open Defecation Free India by 2nd October, 2019.

This historical perspective on cleanliness, coupled with emphasis on neglected garbage challenges, would hopefully lead to mid-course correction of SBM. It should shift focus from clerical targets, events, photo-opportunities to qualitative action & monitoring at the ground level.

This is the key to ensuring that SBM does not end up as grand illusion in the wonderland of garbage, filth and stink.

Sub: Word count

Unlike the writer who has counted the number of times the word "sanitation" appears in RLC reports, I have not counted how many times, the word "Modi" appears in this article of modest length. I get an impression that Swatchh Bharat Mission, in the opinion of the writer, has added to the garbage and sanitation woes!

Posted by Gururaj B N