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Trash Talk

A detailed account of India's struggle with its colossal waste problem.

Trash Talk

Garbage isn't exactly a sexy subject to write or read about. But it's one that's increasingly crucial for our modern world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed how important he thinks it is by making Swachh Bharat almost the centrepiece of his government's programmes.

A new book that's making waves casts the spotlight on trash. The authors, academics Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, held a press conference in Washington and have already been interviewed by a financial daily.

They asked Modi why he highlighted Swachh Bharat. In an emailed response (included as an appendix to the book), Modi said, "Swachh Bharat is the culmination of all the experience I had before I became the PM." Among the events in his mind were his experiences as an RSS worker helping to clean then-flooded Morbi in Gujarat in 1978 and working in Surat in 1994 when fears of bubonic plague stalked the city. The prime minister added, "If we want to improve the standard of living of the poor, one of the basic things to focus on is improving the sanitation and hygiene practices across the country."

Modi is clearly on the right track even if, as the authors contend, "the Swachh Bharat campaign suggests a muscular brand of Hindu nationalism. Calls to protect 'our mothers, sisters and daughters' from the indignities of open defecation insinuated a patriarchal guardianship".

Yes, lots has been written about garbage and waste. But this book stands out. It represents four years of rigorous work across India. It draws on scores of discussions and interviews, official reports and newspaper accounts. It merits great respect. It highlights the sheer scale of India's waste problem.

Estimates of India's annual waste production vary widely, but at 65 million tonnes, "India in 10 years would need an area as big as the state of Goa for its landfill," the book notes. There are other horror stories. Most urban households in India had no connections to sewers in 2017 and most cities and towns had no sewerage. Indeed, the Planning Commission reported in 2011 that the country treats just "30 per cent of the human excreta it generates". Doron and Jeffrey also graphically underscore the dimension of such problems when they point out, "If every one of India's 260 million households had a flush toilet and used it six times a day, toilet use alone would require a reservoir the size of Sydney Harbour once a month."

The book surveys the struggles of sanitation workers and the condemnation of Dalits to scavenging, looks at non-governmental organisations such as Delhi's Chintan and Kerala's Thanal (credited with inspiring Sikkim's cleaning strategies) and tells the stories of waste disposers and recyclers. It offers perspective - England was once filthy, the Thames River was a sewer. "When it flooded, it left raw sewage on the lawns," the book says. The two dons correctly argue that it will take "a binding crisis" to trigger a dramatic clean-up programme. Example: the plague scare in Surat led to a top-to-bottom reform.

The book offers vignettes, too. In 1893, a parliamentary commission studied the sanitary state of the army in India by circulating questionnaires to military centres - and sent the replies for analysis to Florence Nightingale. Her findings: conditions were terrible. Believe it or not, but till the 1970s, the government stalled the development of telecom in cities to discourage the flow of people from rural areas.

Finally, let me throw in a tidbit. More than 50 per cent of people in UP defecate in the open and 56 per cent of children below five are estimated to be stunted. The figures for Kerala: 5 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively.

Over to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.


The reviewer was editor of Mirror magazine, and resident editor of

The Economic Times and

Business Standard

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