The great Indian middle class generally detests all talk about sanitation and waste management. Not only is it all so filthy, it is a problem that cannot be solved in our lifetime and definitely not because of our involvement – that would appear to be the consensus among people who are forever lashing out at the squalour that marks urban life in this country.
The policeman in the picture, relieving himself under one of the giant pillars of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) a few feet off Anna Salai would most likely concur with that view. It is a problem that is intractable, one that defies a solution.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is our problem. In the developed world, it is the organised working class, particularly the trade unions that took up sanitation as a major issue and brought about change. Susan Chaplin’s paper on the subject provides a useful backgrounder.
Would our well-heeled tourists who have river-boat dinners on the Thames in London believe that at one point in history, that river was filled with sewage? That it could not support life, in the same manner that our waterways in Chennai, in Delhi, in Erode or anywhere are today lifeless? That cholera was a dreaded disease in London?
It would take a major shift in our thought process to acknowledge that massive investments are required to handle our waste. A ride on the MRTS from Beach to Velachery will provide sufficient evidence of the failed agenda of public housing and sanitation. There is a seemingly unending line of shanties with plastic sheet toilets built on the river bank, from which human waste flows into the Cooum and Buckingham Canal everyday.
Surprisingly, even this filth is able to support some creatures: common kites, koels, white breasted kingfishers, herons and egrets can be spotted trying to salvage bits of food from here. Imagine what a proper housing plan can do for the waterway, if it is indeed seriously pursued.
The BBC quotes Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh as saying that 65 per cent of rural Indians defecate in the open. It may not appear to be such a big issue for the city-dweller, who devotes little thought to the travails of women in a rural setting and the effects of lack of toilet access on public health. The Guardian recently suggested that human excrement could actually yield economically useful fuel gas, with appropriate chemical processes in place.
In urban India, about a quarter of the households are thought to lack toilet access. When this is considered against the space-challenged setting of cities, the effects are all too obvious — the policeman in our picture being only one example.
All this persists despite our Planning Commission and the Union Government launching a Total Sanitation Campaign. We have no one to blame for our squalour and filth but ourselves.