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Filthy Mayhem in India

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Along with the choking fumes and piles of putrid waste, sound systems and a constant bombardment of honking horns from cars, lorries and screaming buses assault residents and the unprepared in towns and cities throughout India. Loudspeakers are used to spread political propaganda; celebrate and circulate expensive arranged and prolonged weddings; and, mounted outside temples and mosques, loudly proclaim the jargon of the just and the righteous path to salvation.

Noise pollution in the cities and towns is unbearable and adversely affects people’s health: hearing complaints, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular issues, deteriorating work and school performance are some of the more serious effects of this deafening sociological epidemic, which is adding layer upon layer to the nationwide millieu of stress and environmental degradation.

What may have once been considered simply part of the chaotic charm of this extraordinary country − to be endured along with poor sanitation, burgeoning, filthy slums and open sewers − noise, air and water pollution are now seen as a major environmental issue demanding urgent government and community action.

Sound the Horn

In a recent survey of the world’s noisiest cities, India garnered bronze, silver and gold. The capital New Delhi comes in first, with seven million plus vehicles on its streets every day (more than in India’s three other major cities combined), followed closely by India’s richest and most populous city (with 21 million people) Mumbai and then Kolkata. Cars and motorbikes are the source of much of the cacophony. Driving is a noisy adversarial affair: the thrusting horn is blasted in place of using mirrors, indicating, pulling out or overtaking. “Instead of slowing down while turning or approaching an intersection, drivers will blast their horns to warn others of their presence. They also honk at cyclists, pedestrians, children, pye-dogs, cows and anyone else unfortunate enough to be slower than them.” [BBC] In case the essential tarmac protocol should be forgotten, lorries and trailers carry the slogan ‘sound horn’ on their colourful rear end. At junctions drivers turning right use all lanes, blocking those going straight, instigating a symphony of horn blowing, loud and angry.

Honking is not allowed near schools and hospitals; but this is another law which remains largely unenforced and dangerously disregarded. Much like little yappy dogs, the smallest vehicles are often the noisiest and most reckless; “kamikaze motorbikes and scooters weave dangerously through traffic, popping out unexpectedly………as they emit a violent buzz.”[Ibid] At night deserted city streets too busy during daylight hours, are invaded by lorries. Kings of the Road, they tear along, with enlarged air horns capable of 118 decibels, equivalent to a thunderclap (WHO guidelines for urban areas are around 50 decibels: “anything above 85 dB accelerates ear damage,” India Health), proclaiming their dominance over all lesser vehicles and quieter, sleepier forms of life.

The driving in both urban and rural areas is appalling and hazardous: in 2010, 231,027 [World Health Organisation (WHO) latest figures] people died on the roads of India. Families, three, four and five, with school bags and the daily shop, squash onto a single moped or motorbike, with not a helmet (another unenforced legal requirement) between them. Bus drivers in poorly maintained, overcrowded buses, race from stop to stop competing for fares to boost their wages – honking as they go. Road courtesy is virtually non-existent as is observation of regulations. Laws in India are seen as liberal ornaments displayed before visiting foreign dignitaries paving the way for their corporate benefactors, and allowed to collect democratic dust the rest of the time. Politicians, from Delhi downwards set the dishonest corrupt tone, sending out a message to all in society − from truck drivers to corporate Indian man − that laws mean nothing, will not be enforced and need not be obeyed.

Colourful chaos abounds, compounded after dark when it is not uncommon to see motorbikes, cares, lorries and tractors driven on unlit roads, without lights and often on the wrong side. Noisy, reckless and unregulated, the driving is dangerous: deadly for many, hazardous for most.

Noise pollution, whether it be from a chorus of angry lorries and cars, a four day long wedding event, or political electioneering, is unhealthy, unpleasant and a gross intrusion of privacy.

Filthy Streets, Poisonous Rivers

The lack of environmental awareness and respect is, it seems part of the consciousness of the society (Indians may say ‘culture’ – an overused word, uttered in justification of all manner of sociologically harmful behavioural patterns). It is a deeply destructive attitude of government neglect and community apathy, most evident in the sea of stinking waste that fills the towns, cities, and villages; polluting the ground, air and waterways.

All the rivers are polluted, resulting in high levels of water-borne diseases: the Mother of them all, The Holy Ganges, flowing over 1,560 miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s filthiest rivers. Worshipped by Hindus, the river is full of toxic industrial waste, domestic rubbish, clothing detergent and human waste (55% of the population have no toilets); millions defecate in the holy river every day, as well as using Her waters to clean their teeth, for drinking and cooking. One of the many results is faecal contamination, giving rise to a range of illnesses including diarrhoea, which is the second-largest killer of children under five, causing about 1.5 million deaths annually. A study by India’s National Cancer Registry Programme found that levels of cancer in the country were highest amongst people living around the Ganges basin, due to poisonous metals and toxins.

Waste “scars meadows, contaminates streets and feeds a vast and dangerous ecosystem of rats, mosquitoes, stray dogs, monkeys and pigs.” [New York Times] Packs of dogs prowl urban centres, feeding on municipal waste; they fight for territory and bark into the night – adding to the omnipresent noise pollution. Many carry Rabies, which “is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in India every year.” In the North Western town of Srinagar in Jammu, where the ratio of dogs to humans is a mere 1:13 (it’s 1:31 in Mumbai), “54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in the last three-and-a-half years.” [The Hindu]

Residential streets and public spaces where children play and adults gather are polluted with litter, food waste, domestic and industrial filth. The cities alone generate over 100 million tons of solid waste annually, a large percentage of which is plastic (America by comparison in 2010 generated 31 million tons of plastic waste according to ‘Plastic is Rubbish’), and it is estimated that (if urban populations increase at the current rate) by 2045 they will be churning out nearly 300 million tons a year. India’s former Minister for the Environment, Jairam Ramesh stated (in 2010) that, “Our cities are the dirtiest cities of the world. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt.” [The Times of India] And the situation has deteriorated further in the years since his damning comment.

New Delhi (population around 17 million) produces almost 700 tons of daily waste, much of which is plastic; even though plastic bags have been banned in India since 2011, they are everywhere. According to the Supreme Court of India, the country is sitting on a “plastic time bomb;” the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) says, “Total plastic waste which is collected and recycled in the country is estimated to be 9,205 tonnes per day (approximately 60% of total plastic waste);” the rest (6,137 tons) remains uncollected in the streets. In a 2013 survey conducted in 60 major cities the CPCB found that “15,342.46 tonnes of plastic waste was generated every day, amounting to 560,000 tonnes a year.”

Plastic is non-biodegradable and takes hundreds if not thousands of years to break down; microscopic plastics may never entirely decompose and India’s cities are awash with them. “Transmission of mosquito-related diseases is caused by non-biodegradable litter, which causes rainwater to stagnate, or clog drains, which in turn create breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” witnessing “a 71% increase in Malaria cases in the last five years.” [The Hindu]

With economic growth, levels of waste increase (on average, for every additional 1,000 rupees of income, solid waste increases by one kg per month), get more toxic, less biodegradable and more deadly. In the cities plastic and electrical rubbish is now the primary problem and lack of segregation means that everything, including biomedical waste from hospitals, gets thrown on the same municipal dumps.

Taking Out the Rubbish

For most people in India disposing of their waste is straightforward: simply throw it on the road, in the river or, if they’re passing, on the local garbage heap. I was shocked when, travelling by train on my first visit to the country, I saw families gaily throwing their litter out of the window and toilets dropping waste directly onto the tracks. The 20 million plus travelling by train daily produce a mountain of waste around railway lines, which in towns and cities run along densely populated housing/slum dwellings.

In 2000 the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued the ‘Municipal Solid Waste Rules’, a set of legally binding guidelines agreed by Central Government “to regulate the management and handling of the municipal solid wastes.” The legislation makes clear that “every municipal authority shall be responsible for the implementation these rules, and for any infrastructure development for collection, storage, segregation, transportation, processing and disposal of municipal solid wastes.” Local authorities were instructed to set up waste processing and disposal facilities by the end of 2003; in keeping with government neglect, state corruption (local and national) and lack of legislative implementation, to date none of India’s cities have complied.

“Open dumping, open burning, landfill/dumpsite fires, and open human and animal exposure to waste are common” are widespread. Burning of waste constitutes one of the largest sources of air pollution in cities; in Mumbai “it is the cause of about 20 per cent of air pollution.” [The Hindu]

Nobody wants landfill sites near their homes; in Hyderabad officials have been engaged in talks with local residents for ten years now without success. Burning of waste by privately contracted operators, an environmentally unpopular remedy “worse than the disease”, is being phased-out in industrialised nations, but appears to be Indian local governments’ preferred option. Incinerators and waste-to-energy schemes are “rotten with corrupt practices [and] cost 12 to 43 times more than simple, easily managed, low-cost composting.” [Environmentalist and a member of the Supreme Court committee on solid waste management Almitra Patel in Asian Times] Corrupt local authorities, do not “have the capacity to operate or monitor these plants under the strict conditions required to ensure that there is no environmental pollution from toxic emissions.” The ideal solution for India is composting, because unlike developed countries, “where waste is segregated and has high calorie packaging that works well with incinerators, Indian waste is high in organics and moisture.”

India is facing what The Hindu described as a “waste management crisis”: a national plague that kills children, causes serious health issues amongst millions of people, pollutes the air and poisons the rivers. If the country is not to become the world’s biggest sewer, government complacency and indifference needs to give way to a strategic plan of action. In 2012, large numbers took to the streets in nationwide protests, and roads leading to waste handling facilities were blocked. From Jammu in the Northeast to Tamil Nadu in the South people demanded an end to living in filth, and their right to live in a clean, safe environment.

Implementation of legislation together with a nationwide education programme and a massive recycling campaign is urgently required. Social responsibility needs to be cultivated; communities encouraged to look after their neighbourhood; local authorities to act in accordance with their constitutional and moral duty; and businesses forced to act responsibly. Sound the Horn of Change, India.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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