Task of cleaning up India

26th Oct 2017
Task of cleaning up India

Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty endorsing a recycling campaign
(Photo: Sarah Marshall/Muslim News)

As I stand on the platform at New Jalpaiguri waiting to board the train to Varanasi, a woman stands holding her baby to whom she has just fed a bag of potato chips. Once the bag is empty, the mother tosses it onto the ground. A few seconds later, a passerby kicks the bag onto the rails, adding to the piles of rubbish along the railway.

This scenario plays out millions of times a day in India – someone eats a snack and tosses the wrapper on the ground without a second thought. India’s waste management problem is well known to the world.

In a country of over a billion people, managing the ever-increasing piles of rubbish is a major undertaking. That is why in 2014 Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, launched the My Clean India campaign, aimed at cleaning up India’s streets and stopping the practice of open defecation. He launched the program on Mahatma Gandhi’s 145th birthday, with the aim of fulfilling the goal of a “clean India” within five years.

Though this campaign has made strides in cleaning up India’s streets – some people say during this Government’s rule, there does seem to be less rubbish – few people know much about Modi’s plan.

Prinz Prasad, 24-year-old from West Bengal, thinks that people litter because they lack common sense and education about the issue and that the Government provides very few public dustbins to dispose of waste conveniently. As a tourist in India, I can attest to the very few public dustbins, and the mentality of littering seems to be infectious.

Tourists see locals litter without thinking twice, and then they contribute to the problem as well.

There are some infographics around cities encouraging people to separate their trash, and the campaign includes a social media aspect, where people are told to upload a photo of a dirty area under the “iSee” section, another photo while cleaning the area into the “iClean” section, and a final photo of the cleaned area onto the “iMakeMyIndiaClean” section of the website. This initiative has got thousands of responses from those aware of the campaign, but in many areas, there is no action being taken to combat the problem. The message has not reached or has not been heeded, in many areas of India.

On trains, it is well known that when workers sweep rubbish into piles, they simply toss the piles out of the train. When an auto rickshaw driver finishes his paan (betel leaf with areca nut], the wrapper gets tossed onto the road. There is no clear incentive not to throw trash in the street, and no penalty for doing so.

Another aspect of the My Clean India initiative is to combat the problem of open defecation. Millions of Indians do not have access to toilets and, defecate in holes or along bodies of water. Subsequently, millions of children die each year due to diarrhoea, and diseases that spread by flies being attracted to the faecal matter and then landing on food.

Researcher Ashish Shah of Innovate Mediscience India explains that the problem is multifaceted, and greatly affects those suffering from extreme poverty, stating, “People prefer open defecation due to lack of water.” In field studies, Shah found that even those who had toilets often didn’t use them because of the lack of water to flush the waste.

Indians generally do not use toilet paper, so the water they do use for the bathroom is often to clean themselves. Much more is needed to properly flush the waste away. If the waste goes into a single pit sewer system, every month or two, it needs to be cleaned out, costing around 500 rupees. This is not an option for people in extreme poverty. Shah also mentioned that diseases spread faster during the rainy season, as there is not a dry place to relieve oneself and mosquitoes breed in standing water, spreading diseases more easily.

Without strong educational initiatives in all parts of India, cleaning up the massive country will not occur by Gandhi’s 150th birthday. Once the infrastructure is put in places, such as more dustbins that are regularly emptied and proper toilets with running water, incentivizing proper waste disposal methods and penalizing wrongdoers may begin to change the mentality of the Indian people. Promoting the positive results of changes in behaviour can reinforce people’s commitment to it. India is already beautiful; Modi and others just want to keep her that way!

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Science & Policy

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