It is an ambitious target by any stretch of the imagination — 2019 as the year when India will become clean and free of open defecation. So it is no surprise that the Prime Minister’s Office is unhappy with the tardy progress of the Swachch Bharat mission, which is one of the prime minister’s pet projects. Building and ensuring the use of toilets is one major challenge. But the other, which also directly impacts the environment and public health, is the issue of waste management. And here, the task has to begin at home, with each citizen, especially those in urban areas. The concept of segregating waste has not really caught on in any significant way in the metros. Since our officials are so fond of going on study tours, perhaps they should turn their attention to some smaller countries in the West, especially Scandinavia, where the segregation of garbage is an article of faith, often going up to 10 or 11 degrees of separation.
While it may be argued that these are small countries where there is near total compliance with the law and monitoring is not that difficult, size and our blasé attitude cannot be an excuse for shoddy waste disposal in perpetuity. Many people feel free to dispose of their garbage in an unsanitary fashion because they simply have no fear of the law and lack a civic consciousness. But, the problem of toxic landfills within our urban areas is posing both an adverse environmental impact and a health hazard. In an effort to reduce the pile-up of garbage, these landfills are often set alight, creating toxic fumes and adding to an already polluted atmosphere.
Swachch Bharat can work only if we get our waste disposal in order, whether it is generated by households or industry. It has to be tackled at source. What is being done now — trying to treat waste that has been generated — is not only expensive, but patchy in the extreme. The government has to review how well, if at all, environmental safeguards are being implemented by industry. As for households, local bodies have to play a more proactive role. The issue of garbage in public places comes up every now and again when there is an epidemic. And once the threat is over, it is back to business as usual. Given the colossal task at hand, no one can afford to wash their hands of it.