Our cities can be clean if citizens allow them to be

  • Sanjoy Narayan
  • Updated: Nov 29, 2015 08:47 IST
MCD workers clean a street littered with burst crackers on the morning after Diwali in Patel Nagar, New Delhi. (HT Photo/Sanchit Khanna)

Last week Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal flagged off a sanitation drive to clean up the capital city. He announced a phone app that enables residents to send location-tagged photos of places where garbage is piled up to the government, which can then swing into action. In a rare (and cynics may say, political) move, Kejriwal’s drive includes collaboration between his administration and the central government, both of which otherwise make news together only when they spar. That, however, is just a sidelight and not relevant to the CM’s clean Delhi drive, inspired as it may have been by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachch Bharat Mission. The relevant question is whether such a top-down approach will work in cleaning up Delhi, or for that matter any of India’s 53 ‘million plus’ cities, each one of which is in dire need of a clean-up.

If it works, Kejriwal’s drive to involve citizens in the process of garbage removal from the streets of Delhi will address only one end of the problem; another, how much garbage citizens generate and how they get rid of it, will still remain unaddressed. Delhi city’s 17 million citizens generate 10,000 tonnes of garbage every day; by 2021, that number may grow to 15,000 tonnes a day. And here’s the rub: despite campaigns for recycling and processing of garbage nearly 60% of it is dumped unprocessed in the city’s over-burdened landfills.

Get away from Delhi and go to any Indian city — big, small or medium-sized — and you will encounter the same thing perhaps on a different scale. Garbage generation is rising; processing is not nearly as widespread as it ought to be; and proper disposal is rare. You could blame local governments for that and leave it at that. That would be easy but also erroneous. Because keeping a city clean is, of course, the responsibility of its sanitation workers but also of its citizens — those who generate garbage. Many Indian cities, including Delhi, have tried to make people adopt modern yet simple methods such as garbage segregation where households separate garbage into wet and dry or bio-degradable and non-biodegradable, which makes it easier to recycle, process or compost garbage, thereby reducing the burden on overflowing landfills. But there have been few takers. In Delhi, one survey found just 6% of households were even considering segregation. It may not be wrong to assume that things are the same or even worse in other Indian cities. Does your household segregate its garbage? There, that’s what I mean.

The challenge of cleaning up cities and, indeed, for the PM’s Swachch Bharat programme has much to do with the mindset and attitudes of our people. And their seemingly innate desire not to follow rules of any kind. Citizens from all income classes litter, spit or use their city as an open toilet instinctively. It’s almost like an Indian thing to do. Traffic rules are broken with impunity. On Delhi’s streets, 12,67,986 people were fined for jumping signals between January and mid-November this year. Anyone who has commuted on Delhi’s roads knows that such a number is piffling compared to the number of times drivers break that traffic rule as well as a host of others and go unpunished.

Traffic rules or universally accepted norms such as queueing up at a counter are regarded as optional for the average Indian citizen as is the fairly simple act of disposing of litter in designated bins. Modi may have surprised many when he announced the Swachch Bharat initiative from the ramparts of Red Fort last year because after all cleaning up India’s cities, towns and villages aren’t among the lofty things prime ministers are expected to talk about on Independence Day but it is time an initiative such as that got a push from the top.

In Delhi, using the new app people sent in 35,000 photographs in the first 10 days after it was launched. In addition, the government has installed new trash bins and is collecting an average of 900 extra tonnes of garbage a day since October 2014. But the real job of cleaning up Delhi or any of India’s cities depends on those who generate garbage and not those who have to mop up after them.


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