One of the rosy pictures that the tag “Incredible India” forms in our heads is that of the huge pile of garbage dumped at a corner of the street, entertaining and feeding dogs, cows, birds, even kids at times. India is soon going to be the world’s largest garbage dump yards.
For a country with a land coverage of 3.287 million square kilometre and 1.324 billion people (382 people per square kilometre), the amount of waste generated daily is a whopping 62 million tonnes, of which 45 million tonnes of waste is disposed unhygienically and untreated, causing both health issues and environmental degradation.
Garbage, hence, clearly stands out as an important feature in our country’s identity, and an important factor affecting our health and livelihoods. Then why is it that garbage or waste management hasn’t garnered the attention that it deserves?
All of us complain about the waste dumped at the corner of our streets; we crib about how ugly the place has become thanks to the garbage there, about the foul smell when we pass by that corner. We have only been cribbing. Why have we not done anything about it? Why are our government and policy makers not doing something concrete to tackle this? Why have we not pestered our policy makers on this subject? Why do we not take steps against this Incredible India picture and do something about it instead of waiting for our government to act?
Until recently, even I was amongst these ignorant citizens who always whined at the sight of waste, but for some reason always considered that this was not a battle for me to think about. To me waste was an issue, but not an alarming one that required my attention, not something I needed to think about and work towards. To me, there seemed to be many more pressing issues that needed attention. Until recently that is.
Until C Srinivasan, also known as Vellore Srinivasan, conducted a workshop for the Bhoomi College students on Solid and Liquid Waste Management. Srinivasan is the founder of Indian Green Service and pioneer of some simple but effective methodologies to address the garbage we produce. During this 2-day workshop, he repeatedly emphasised the scale of the waste management problem our country deals with. We got to understand a plethora of concerns pertaining to waste: that garbage is one of the root causes of cholera and diarrhoea; that it is responsible for 60 percent of our country’s deaths!
The scenario of garbage in India can be linked to the system of caste and the practice of untouchability. Garbage is dirty, smelly, ugly for us. We believe we are of a certain standard and feel we are not entitled to do anything about our garbage. It is not something for us to worry about, even if the sight of it irritates us. There is a stigma attached to garbage and our attitude towards it turns out to be one of the primary reasons why it continues to get piled up in that corner of our street. Our mentality - that only a certain section of society should clear the waste and that we are not one of them - is what makes our country the Incredible India it is.
But what we fail to understand are the repercussions of this apathy towards waste and its mismanagement. Once waste is thrown on a street corner, if it is not cleared within a certain period of time, it becomes home to maggots. Maggots start breeding over a pile of garbage within 72 hours of its dumping. They soon start forming house fly larvae which grow into house flies (yes, the same ones often found resting on piles of animal faeces) which, when they visit to share our dinner, end up giving us cholera and diarrhoea. More than 1 lakh children died of diarrhoea in India in 2015 according to this study by the medical journal The Lancet.
Maggots aren’t alone! Once the dumped waste overflows and enters drains and water channels, they get clogged, resulting in stagnation of water and the subsequent pollution of septic tanks. The polluted water from septic tank reaches our rivers and water bodies, polluting all the natural water sources of the regions. Polluted water draws breeding mosquitoes, and within 48 hours, mosquito larvae form. In their short 30-day lifespan, mosquitoes give the people living around the water bodies dengue, malaria and chikungunya. Over 18,700 dengue-related deaths were recorded in India in 2017 alone! When we were diagnosed with dengue, did we ever think that the mosquito which bit us was breeding in the garbage we threw?
Did we know that cows scavenge at these street corners for food and end up eating plastic that remains in their stomachs, never getting disposed, clogging up their insides and killing them? We observe cows roaming around on the roads and think their stomachs are huge because they are pregnant, but in most of the cases, they are only full with plastic hence the size and the cries of pain.
From the waste dumping sites of Brahmapuram (Cochin), Kodungaiyur and Perungudi (Chennai), and Deonar (Mumbai), it is pretty well known that where trash is dumped and left uncleared for days, not just land and soil, but also the underground water tables get polluted. Over time, the toxicity from the land seeps deep down into the aquifers, the very same aquifers our bore wells are dug into.
At the dump yard, after a period of time, the pile consisting of not just organic wastes but also plastic, is burned. This eventually becomes heaps of toxic ash which engulfs the air. Burning piles of mixed waste pose severe cascading impacts on the air quality and liveability of the surrounding regions, causing not just temperature increase but major respiratory diseases, even cancer.
The simple act of discarding our household waste in that street corner has profound effects on land and water, animals and birds, and human health and well-being. There’s at least one person we know who has suffered from dengue. At least once in our own lives, we have been scared of being diagnosed with dengue. Is that not enough to change our actions?
(Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series to learn about Vellore Srinivasan's elegant and effective solution for zero-waste villages, towns and cities.)
Riya is a student of science and management in sustainable living at at Bhoomi College. She believes in the power the media offers. Using it, she aims at creating a socially just world where everybody lives together in harmony, in sync with nature. She is a civil engineer by profession, who prior to Bhoomi worked in the construction project management industry.