How India wastes away

Waste of a Nation

Garbage and Growth in India

Assa Doron & Robin Jeffrey

Harvard University Press

416 pages

Rs 799


Why is India so filthy? Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, the timely new book by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey seeks to answer the question that has troubled many of us. India’s waste crisis is a factor of growing population (rivalled only by China), cultural attitudes towards waste, increased use of heavily packaged products and ill-suited waste management technologies.


The only way, they argue, to deal with the waste we generate, is to segregate it at source, empower the local kabadiwala and waste picker and, perhaps, get appropriate technology to deal with it. However, over the years, waste management in India has been dogged by poor technology choices, marginalisation of the people/communities who work with waste and the popular propensity to “flush and forget”. Waste that is out of public sight is easily and conveniently forgotten, even though landfills across the country have turned into mountainous fire hazards and our waterways have turning into cesspits. The root cause of all this, the authors argue, is because Indians are culturally disposed to think of waste as unclean, and its disposal as something that is left to the lower castes to carry out. And there’s a special revulsion we as a society have for excrement; we’re content to let it pollute our rivers and aquifers as long as we don’t see it, and god forbid, smell it.


Readers might get a faint hint of a stink in their argument linking India’s problem of waste to the caste system alone. The world over, sewage systems are dependent upon the efficacy of sewage treatment plants, without which the water-intensive flush simply adds more and more toxic black goop to oceans, lakes and rivers. The other option is to use “eco-friendly” toilets. The authors aver that the present models of self-composting toilets are expensive and impractical (they need to be emptied out manually). Why single Indians out for not having adopted measures that the developed world hasn’t?


There is good reason for this. Given that air, earth and water know no geographical boundaries, the nation with the world’s second highest population has to find better ways to manage its waste before it irrevocably damages the planet as we know it. But here’s the rub: Instead of inventing better waste management technologies, the developed world is actually dumping its toxic and non-degradable waste in developing countries with cheap manpower like India.


Messrs Doron and Jeffrey highlight how this waste is segregated and recycled in unregulated, toxic conditions, not unlike the conditions in which manual scavengers work. The description of how India recycles everything from ships to hair makes for interesting reading, and much of it isn’t pretty.


An interesting chapter details waste management technologies that have failed in different parts of the country, including the green incinerator in Kerala and solar-powered boats in Varanasi. The reason for failure was that the technology was not adapted to local conditions. The authors use these cases to argue that there are no quick fixes -- the problem must be tackled from bottom up where waste is generated in the first place.


The most high-tech and expensive waste management technology of them all, readers might be surprised to learn, is the landfill. In their ideal form, landfills were envisaged as high-tech, high-input areas where leachates would be strictly controlled and waste segregated, recycled and used to generate electricity. The authors visited landfills across the country, and examine the unique sets of sociological, political and economic pressures under which they work. They found that most Indian landfills are glorified dumps, incapable of dealing with the hugely increasing quantities of waste that India is throwing out.


How have we come to this pass? The authors write what many of us have experienced firsthand – until the eighties, Indian households hardly generated any non-degradable waste. They take the example of dental care. The shift from flossing with bio-degradable neem twigs (datun) to tooth powder in recyclable metal tins, and finally to toothpaste packaged in virtually impossible to degrade plastic and metal laminate, has helped contribute to the mountains of waste in the country today.


Early on in the book, the authors delineate the history of waste management across the world, from the earliest incineration systems in Britain, the US’s abortive experiment of using garbage to extract usable materials like oils to the present -- sanitary landfills and sewage treatment plants. When poorly husbanded, these have become root causes of daily disaster and disease that affect the rich and poor, landed and landless equally. Whether it is the stunting of growth in childhood, or the repeated fires and landslides in urban landfills, or the proliferation of rodents and other disease carriers – waste-related disasters affect everyone irrespective of their class, and indeed in this context, caste.


Although most of the arguments here are commonsense, they bear repeating.  For example, the authors say it’s not enough to build sewage lines – we have to figure out what to do with the waste inside them, as the discharge of untreated sewage is the single most important cause for ground and surface water pollution. They also write that with strong political/administrative pressure and earmarked funds, it is possible for India to achieve the present government’s toilet building targets. But the ambitious Swachh Bharat programme could be doomed if people are not convinced about the need to use them. In fact, the key takeaway from this book is that it isn't extra funding or better technology which is crucial for successful waste management -- it is attitudinal change.


Towards its conclusion, the book looks at successful public-private partnerships in waste management, such as segregating waste at source and converting the degradable waste into electricity-generating gas through a bio-methanation plant. Affordable, efficient waste management technologies and a corresponding change in consumer attitudes towards waste could potentially convert waste into a valuable resource that yields energy and fertiliser.


This is a book not only for sociologists, public health professionals and NGOs working on waste management but for everyone who has wondered why our country is so filthy. The book concludes with an email interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who reiterates the importance of cleaning up the nation by eradicating open defecation and proper garbage management, without offering concrete solutions other than building toilets. Whether he, or any other political leader takes it up or not, Waste of a Nation correctly highlights the imperative that unless everyone takes ownership of the waste they generate, a day might soon come when we talk not about the waste of a nation, but of the entire planet.

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