By: Emma Almon, DPOL
In India, I’ve found that facetime with fauna isn’t hard to come by. Each day I pass the macaques hanging around the Connaught Place Police Station, irreverently stealing food from tourists and small stalls. When I had to bring my foster puppy to the shelter vet, I waited on the bench next to a boy with his patient goat. Roadblocks more often than not are caused by a group of cows ambling onto the street. I don’t mean to sensationalize a wild image of India, but rather wish to express my appreciation for its concrete jungles. I hardly blinked when I saw penguins scattered on the lawns of Lucknow’s Bara Imambara, but more on that later.
As an American working in India, there are many moments where I struggle to dissociate what is and isn’t natural. One such instance happened a few weeks back on a site visit. Our team project focuses on pollution in over 90 of Delhi’s waterbodies. We are trying to create a scheme that removes various forms of waste from the bodies and reuses it in an environmentally and fiscally sound manner. My colleague Varun and I were in Sangam Vihar expecting to find a drain, but instead, what lay before us was an ocean of waste.
An abandoned bicycle cart. Trees sprouting from patches of mud and grass. A garbage pile 10-feet high. A single white cow wading through the plastic. The only betrayal that this community landfill was a waterbody was that the cow sunk a little deeper with each step.
Varun started talking to the nearby residents. They said that the lake beneath the surface was three stories deep; that in the monsoon season the garbage floats; that a municipal worker drowned trying to clean it 15 years ago and that a child died while playing there 7 or 8 years back. And as he listened to their plaints about the sight, the odor, the safety hazards and the government’s neglect; a woman amongst the group flung a bag of trash onto the heap. I was at a loss for words. Luckily, I had merely to take down notes while Varun carried on the interview with the group unfazed.
My innate reaction was one of incredulity. Littering is an act wholly incompatible with my worldview. Blue is the color of the sky, the water, and the recycling bin. It’s a tautology, but trash goes in the trash, not in the rectangular space Google Maps marks blue.
When Jodie Underhill, a UK tourist in 2008, saw the garbage in the mountains of northern India, it unnerved her so much that she mounted clean-ups that attracted volunteers that developed into an army of Waste Warriors. In an interview with NDTV, she stated: “I didn’t come to India with the intention of starting an NGO, I just started clean-up drives after feeling so frustrated at seeing garbage everywhere.” At every site I tour I pick up a piece of litter. It’s in my muscle memory like hitting the shutter button on my camera. Walking through Delhi, I’m just as quick to pick up what people throw down, and I make sure they see me do it in the process. I know I shouldn’t glare, but sometimes I can’t curb my frustration.
Then there’s the immediate reproach of my anger. Everyone lives with the fact that Delhi’s waste management system isn’t up to speed. Its expired landfills can’t bear the 10,000 metric tonnes of waste the city produces each day. Few are more acutely aware of municipal shortcomings than the woman residing in Sangam Vihar. She doesn’t see a waterbody to be rejuvenated, revitalized or replenished. She sees their only dumping ground because the Municipal Corporation of Delhi doesn’t collect their trash and the NGO that promised a boundary wall didn’t deliver. For the community, a fresh start is a layer of cement. And I wonder if they would consider it littering if that waterbody were to be paved into a street. I doubt it.
The problem of trash in India’s cities is thoroughly-documented and lamented, but the discourse tends towards resignation. Seeing trash on the road is as natural a phenomenon as seeing a cow. Like the graphic pictures of cancer on cigarette boxes, articles on ‘Plastic Cows’ with 15, 30, 70, 100 kilograms of waste removed from their insides is a disgust appeal that can be stomached. But what if the trash didn’t go to into the bodies of water or of cows, but in the belly of another beast: say, a penguin.
In my travels across India, I’ve encountered quite a few of these animal dustbins. In Pushkar, there were bunnies with baskets. Strolling through Udaipur’s Gulab Bagh gardens, I came across wide-eyed birds and little piggies imploring me to leave them my waste. Once I noticed a trend, I began collecting snapshots of these bins like litter from tourist sites. At my request, a friend sent me a photo from his alma mater, where he told me they changed all the bins on campus to, in his words, “ugly, monkey bins from hell.” My parents reached out when my bi-monthly photo dumps showed a curious uptick in trash cans: ‘is everything alright?’, they asked. I don’t have an answer for them.
I wanted to write a light-hearted piece on these playfully animal dustbins that gave me such joy at first sight. But the more I look at them, the more I see plain bins dressed in sheep’s clothing. We applaud ‘entrepreneurial’ smart garbage cans that exchange an otherwise discarded piece of plastic for 15 minutes of that sweet elixir Wi-Fi, and we buy-in to the Cleanoscope, that aims to “make the dustbin sexy,” by generating beautiful patterns from the filth within.
Don’t get me wrong, I think these ideas are all neat, and I love that they promote awareness, but they also give me numerous reasons to pause. There is the overtly cosmetic approach they take. The Cleanoscope’s tagline is, I kid you not, “Cleanliness creates Beauty.” Reducing waste management to an aesthetic issue ignores the gravity of the public health hazard trash poses in the release of methane gases in the air and leachates in the groundwater. There is an unavoidable classism in the fact that the reward for desired behavior is accessible, if you have a smartphone. The idea arose after all, not from a pure desire to clean urban streets, but because two friends couldn’t find each other at a Bangalore music festival. There’s a reason I’ve only ever seen animal dustbins next to immaculately kept lawns. Lastly, I don’t want to diminish the intelligent design that went into crafting these bins, but I’m concerned that they’re being unleashed without a master plan.
The Swachh Bharat crusade to install more dustbins is admirable, but as in the case of more toilets, it only works if the pipes and plumbing are in place too. I think back to the crestfallen face of my city heritage tour guide in Ahmedabad. He regaled how wonderful it once was to navigate the labyrinthine paths of the Walled City, and told me how unrecognizable they are now amidst heaps of trash. The municipal corporation gave dustbins to every household, but without consistent waste collection, they were better served as water pails or as material to sell to scrap dealers. Sensitization programs on the importance of proper waste disposal (and segregation for that matter!) are critical to emboldening individual and communal responsibility to tackle India’s SWM problems. However, I remain vigilant against the generalization that Indians have a predisposition to litter; that the root cause of trash is apathy; and that India’s current state is its natural state.