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Dying a slow death

A nation’s lifestyle is nothing but the integrated lifestyles of its people which, in turn, is nothing but the living pattern of individuals. And few things reflect an individual’s lifestyle as honestly as the pile of garbage that collects in the kitchen, and is thrown out, at the end of the day, says Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: May 21, 2010 23:23 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Hindustan Times

There is a misanthrope in me. Else, on the eve of January 26, when asked to send some thoughts on how our Republic has evolved over six decades, I would have written about our amazing achievements as a nation, our open democracy, the green revolution in our farms, the blue revolution in our fish-thronged oceans and rivers, our white revolution represented by ‘Amul’, and all these capped by the information technology (IT) and information and communications technology (ICT) revolutions.

But no, contemplating the theme, none of these came to mind. Only rubbish did. Pure rubbish. Before I continue, I must digress for a moment.

When we think of Mohammed Ali Jinnah we think of him, quite accurately, as a proponent of the ‘Two Nation’ theory and the founder and first Governor General of Pakistan. But when he was still very much a star on the firmament of undivided India, and a successful barrister, his reputation as a lawyer in Bombay was more than formidable. Having being interrupted thrice during a hearing by a judge who kept saying ‘rubbish’, on each such occasion, Jinnah turned to him and said: “Nothing but rubbish has passed from your lordship’s mouth throughout the day”. Nothing but rubbish will form the rest of this column today.

A nation’s lifestyle is nothing but the integrated lifestyles of its people which, in turn, is nothing but the living pattern of individuals. And few things reflect an individual’s lifestyle as honestly as the pile of garbage that collects in the kitchen, and is thrown out, at the end of the day. When I was around ten, ours was a ‘middle’ middle-class household, neither ‘high’ enough to have a multi-cuisine kitchen, nor ‘low’ as not to be able to fry its paranthas in ghee. There was little by way of kitchen waste that stayed.

The atta and the sugar, the rice and the salt, bought at the start of the month were put away in jars, their paper wrappings disposed of or, if they came in cloth or jute bags, recycled. The kitchen had but one bin, a recycled open atta-tin, into which went the vegetable chhilkas, and little else for there was little else to throw.

Today, a kitchen in a middle middle-class home, has not one but two overflowing bins or pedal-bins into which go in an unceasing torrent of sachets. Of different sizes and micron calibre, the bulging, floppy, squishy bladders are emptied of a host of contents like milk and sugar and salt — all essentials — and of the unessential but indispensable processed foods, pasta, frozen vegetables, ketchup, floating in see-through plastic. And drinking water! That comes fitfully in the tap but unerringly in bambas supplied by distributors of captured groundwater, or in pet bottles.

Quite naturally, ‘self-run’ kitchen owners like my wife and I generate plastic litter, even before we have boiled the milk for the ‘day-opening’ coffee, for the white lifegiver comes in an easy-to-handle plastic sachet, waiting to be snipped at its tip.

Overreacting to the stifling commercialism, the second thing I do is give the morning newspaper a vigorous shake to get all advertising leaflets out of my way. I want to be able to read the morning’s shockers undistracted. The third thing that gets done is not physical but psychological: to lament not so much the nature of the world’s news, as its marginalisation by ads, full-page and front-page and so often now, stuck on to the paper’s sides with a determined glue that tears the newsprint before it parts from it.

The morning walk that follows shows us our kitchen bin in its hugest enlargement, which is into its public persona. Walking to the postbox, chemist or grocer, or walking towards the beach for my morning or evening walk, I go right past the ‘remains of my day’. I walk along overflowing bins recognising every article in it. ‘Ask not for who the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’, can be rephrased to ‘Ask not for who the bin flows, it flows for thee’.

Every piece, fragmented or whole, slashed,de-capped, punctured or squeezed-out, I recognise as mine or of my type. I, along with some 400 million urban Indians, are the authors of this surging swell of our deathless wastes. I came across a statistic which may not be absolutely accurate, but it is a pointer nonetheless. Of the 377 million tonnes of solid waste urban India generates, only 295 million tonnes are collected. What does this really mean? It means that out of, say, 37 or 38 items of waste generated 29 or 30 are ‘collected’. But are the 37 or 38 going away? No, they are not. They are there, somewhere on our dear land’s vacant lots, which are shrinking each passing day. The 29 are only being moved, shifted, from Point A to Point B without being sublimated into harmlessness.

I would like to believe that the move from Point A to Point B is a move from dumping to recycling but, I fear, mostly it is not. Some cities and some states do better than others. But on an average, the Indian story of solid waste disposal is not ‘very topping’. Garbage is moved to the edges of cities and towns, to dumps that are meant to be other things, including waterbodies, marshes, fields. There, urban India’s disgorgings fester. Those are also the places where or near where our aquifers are being tapped for the bambas of pani we buy, and the distilled brews in smart dark bottles we sit back to imbibe.

With water underneath sinking and garbage above rising, what awaits us? At this rate of piling on without proportionate recycling, how long will it take us to begin to choke? We are told that urban India will grow from its present size of about 400 million to nearly 600 million by 2030 and that this will drive a four-fold rise in urban per capita incomes. That is just 20 years from now. Even I could be around to see that achievement. That projected rise can mean many things to many people, but to the manufacturers of plastic ‘outers’ of a myriad consumables, this is a heaven-sent prospect. It means growth, well-being and a graph of rising profits that would put the Chandrayaan’s trajectory in a shade. How long will our earth take to protest? Will it be able to take the concomitant rise in the scale of non-decaying rubbish?

In a work titled Agriculture and Human Values, M. Douglas Meeks has written what belongs to the world of philosophy and also to the real world of now. He writes: “The land is in trouble...the land is not insensitive, it can be hurt. Land is not inexhaustible, it can be depleted. Land is not immortal, it can die. When the land is misused, unmercifully pounded, poisoned with chemicals and mindlessly exploited, it makes its justified protest. The only protest that land can make, however, is to die.”

We will not let our land die. Far too many people, authorities included, have concerned themselves with this problem to let that happen. And the harvesting of rainwater is now becoming a part of our vocabulary. But this is not enough, not enough by half. The awakened octopus of our market needs to be asked if the ocean it lives in goes toxic and then dry, what will having eight hands avail?

First Published: May 21, 2010 22:10 IST