What, we filthy?

Sunday, 4 November 2012 - 10:39am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
More and more paper and plastic are being used as packaging material, leading to more and more waste, much of it generated by the upper classes.

I saw this film recently, A Royal Affair, set in eighteenth century Denmark, and based on real events during the reign of Christian VII. Across Europe, there were changes in people’s ideas about religion, science and civil rights. There was talk of peasants or serfs actually having rights, like the right to not be tortured. There was talk of vaccination. And yet, the streets of Copenhagen apparently stank.

The royal council — comprised mostly of the nobility, mostly men with inherited property and titles — did not want to spend on citizen babies getting vaccinated. It took a lot to ensure routine garbage collection.

That was not the only nation where people thought public sanitation was a luxury they could opt out of. As late as 1910, in France, there was resistance to building a sewage system. Property owners, or so I’ve read, preferred to clog the streets with filth rather than pay to install new sewage pipes. It was bureaucrats who worked hard to create a decent sewage system. Someone has remarked that the streets could have been cleaned in ten years, but it took a hundred years because the educated, middle and upper class would not cooperate.

Now here we are, over two hundred years later, trying to figure out what to do with our endless tonnage of garbage and sewage. More and more paper and plastic are being used as packaging material, leading to more and more waste, much of it generated by the upper classes. Yet, most housing societies and commercial establishments do not invest in segregation or recycling.

The municipality in Bangalore has finally made segregation of garbage mandatory for homes and commercial establishments, starting October this year. But Bangalore’s hotels were opposed to the move. They thought it wasn’t ‘feasible’, which is not true. It would only require separate bins and just a teeny bit of consideration.

They did say that garbage collectors would mix up segregated garbage, which is a real concern. Collectors aren’t trained properly in recycling and composting; the benefits are not clear to them. Hence, the Delhi High Court had to issue a contempt notice against the municipality’s sanitation department in Delhi for poor waste management. All the wet and dry waste collected was being mixed together again when it went into the landfill.

In Mumbai, there have been some feeble attempts. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation warned housing societies that they have to either start segregating garbage or pay fines. I don’t know how many were actually fined, but as far as I can tell, dustbins on the streets overflow with a mixed mess of glass, plastic and food. Which can only mean that either households are refusing to segregate waste, or that collectors don’t have separate bins and separate trucks for transporting wet and dry waste to different destinations.

It’s not so hard to do. I know that some residential areas in Pune had made it compulsory to keep wet and dry waste in separate bins. When the collector arrived in the morning, he brought two bins and that made his sorting task simpler. It also made it easier to convert waste into organic manure. There is no reason why segregation should not be mandatory in every town. Every housing society could have its own garden with its own manure-production unit. It could lead to an income for more people.

For once, the municipal authorities are trying to do the right thing. Perhaps they aren’t succeeding but the citizens — especially those who can afford dustbins — are equally responsible. We can clean up our streets in ten years, or we can take a hundred. Or we can wait for an epidemic.

Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)


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