Watch your waste

(Below are excerpts from an article in The Hindu by Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren of Dalhousie University, Canada; ‘Watch your waste’, Sept 6 2014)

In his Independence Day speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly espoused the idea that one of the biggest obstacles in the formation of our national character is the filth that surrounds us. This, as he himself recognised, would seem to be an uncharacteristic and trivial matter for the prime minister to weigh upon on the most important day in the nation’s history. Nevertheless, he thinks it is critical enough to ask 125 countrymen to “resolve not to leave a speck of dirt in our village, city, street, area, school, temple, hospital…”

There are a couple of fundamental problems with the prime minister’s exhortation. First, it makes it seem that dirt and filth is merely a cultural problem, a defect in the national character that can be rectified by moral reform alone. Thus he asks: “If the countrymen decide that they will never spread filthiness, which power in the world has ability to spread filthiness in our cities and villages?” This leads to a narrow understanding of filth as dirt and litter spread carelessly by the common people, which, among other things, become a major barrier to promoting tourism as Modi emphasised. And second, Modi’s good intentions of cleaning up the country are at complete odds with the other thrust of his address which wants to see India as a world power by making it a manufacturing and digital hub, and a tourism destination.

Understanding this big and long-term picture of how societies come to be what they are is vital. This does not mean that piecemeal changes like adoption of better hygiene and sanitation, an absolutely critical issue in India, without larger socio-economic transformations will not prevent the loss of easily savable lives. After all, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death of children under the age of five worldwide — 2,195 children every day — more than AIDS, malaria and measles put together.

Nevertheless, cleanliness is not only about adopting better practices of hygiene but also about confronting the gigantic nightmare of filth in the form of trash and waste (and all manner of pollutants) produced presently in the process of production and consumption. By ignoring this aspect of the production of filth, Modi is missing the picture. Filth is wrongly associated only with poverty and backwardness. Waste is an almost inalienable byproduct of urbanisation and industrialisation driven by capitalism. Urban residents now produce as much as four times the waste of rural inhabitants, and developed countries produce far more waste than the developing nations.

In this context of unbridled production and consumption of goods as well as production of trash with grave human and ecological costs, it is extraordinary that Modi appeals to the world: “Come, make in India,” “Come, manufacture in India,” everything — automobiles, plastics, submarines and satellites. Basically, it is a call to traverse the path already trodden by the Western countries in the beginning, followed by Japan and S. East Asian countries later, and China in the present, all leaving an almost irrevocable trail of destruction in its wake. Thus, for example, in America, after two centuries of industrial “progress”, 40 per cent of its waters are rendered unfit for fishing or swimming, two million children are susceptible to neurological damage caused by heightened lead levels and one million cancers could be caused by pesticides in food alone.