Rudyard Kipling in Kim, published in 1901, had found Varanasi a ‘filthy city’ and Mumbai a ‘beautiful’ one. The imperialist in him would have been delighted to find Varanasi worse than what he saw and Mumbai not so ‘beautiful’ anymore.
The degeneration of our cities due to inadequate waste management has become a widespread problem in India. Every now and then something happens to bring the problem to the headlines: Over the past week, a heap of rubbish caught fire in Mumbai’s Deonar, leading to unprecedented pollution in India’s financial capital. Meanwhile, in Delhi, garbage is piling up due to a strike by municipal workers. The point is that we manage our household and industrial waste appallingly. The fire in Mumbai was waiting to happen: So scarce are landfill sites and such is the strain they bear that it is easy for disasters to happen. Delhi has just three sites, one of which is non-functional now. The immediate consequence of this is disease. Last year Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal started a drive through a phone app that would enable people to send to the government images of places where garbage was piling up. That app must be fairly buzzing now.
Industrial waste pollutes our rivers, on which our cities depend. The Ganga, for example, absorbs daily more than 2,000 million litres of filth spewed by factories. And 95% of the money spent on cleaning the river was used to build a sewage system, which has proved insufficient. Chennai’s recent floods showed how unchecked construction can wreak havoc in cities. As regards e-waste, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) website says there are only 17 collection centres and only four authorised recyclers in the city.
But any urban mess has solutions, both human and technological. For example in Oslo, the neighbourhoods are connected to the city’s automatic trash disposal system. This system moves trash underground to incinerators where it is used to create energy. In Santa Fe, Mexico, there are no major manufacturing zones within 200 miles of the city. At the level of the individual, there are methods such as garbage segregation. In all this, committed administrators can contribute a lot, as did SR Rao, who took over as municipal commissioner of Surat after the plague in 1994 and made the city India’s second-cleanest one.