//Sanitised epidemic : Vikram Bedi

Sanitised epidemic : Vikram Bedi

Why is this famous ghost, ‘civic sense’, so starkly absent? Is it not because of our casteist ideas of personal and familial purity, never mind the hygiene of the wider, shared public space?

Vikram Bedi Delhi, Hard News Media , Nov 2006

In Mumbai a while ago, wondering how to get to the local-train station, I asked someone in the amorphous crowd, and was told to go straight and turn right ‘at the overflowing rubbish heap’. Garbage as landmark: as routine and central to the urban Indian sensory experience.

Back in New Delhi, I was witness to an abrasive dispute between a landlady in an up market South Delhi colony and the (dalit) garbage-removal contractor hired by the local welfare association. She was viscerally objecting to his new exorbitant rate of Rs 30 a month. She apparently felt no responsibility for her garbage. I got the distinct impression she would dump her household waste for free in a vacant private or public plot, if that were only convenient and safe enough. She just wanted distance between her space and her garbage, at the lowest possible cost— no question of segregating waste or of being concerned about where the garbage from her colony was going, with what effects on the natural and human ecology of her city. This lady, punctilious in her domestic sanitation and hygiene, let me emphasise, is from a ‘clean’ upper caste-class family located high in the rigid Hindu caste hierarchy.

I was in a Delhi slum ‘rehabilitation’ colony recently, one fitted out by the government with drains and public toilets. Except that the admittedly well-built sewer-drains were open, choked with solid refuse, full of stagnant, fetid water, layered with mosquitoes in grand repose. The impressive public lavatory-cum-bath had been contracted out not to a local residents’ association but to a private operator whose rates were such that, for a family of, say, five, to bathe and relieve themselves just once a day, would require a monthly ‘toilet budget’ of well over Rs 1,000! And this, for impoverished families with average, highly uncertain incomes of scarcely Rs 3,000.

So why do people throw their garbage into the drains, thereby clogging it, I asked a number of residents. The government hasn’t provided large refuse bins for each street, what else to do? But weren’t you just complaining of the diseases that afflict your kids because of these infernal choked, putrid drains? Yes, but what to do? And besides, there’s no point being full of civic concern when you are pretty much the only one being responsible. If everyone cooperates, so will I. Till such time, what else to do?

Meanwhile, as if we weren’t disease-riddled enough, epidemics of dengue and chikungunya have broken out, giving the media an ideal, suitably sensationalist topic, with just the right mix of danger, incomprehension and scandalous

government culpability. One wonders why epidemics are perversely good commercial news, but not endemics like malnourishment, anaemia, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera. Perhaps because these are, for the most part, afflictions of the poor, not of the cable news-watching respectable types, able to afford decent-to-lavish food, clean, well-serviced housing, drinkable water, health-hygiene-education-information, and, of course, private health care.

Watching  TV debates on the epidemics ‘raging’ (one could be forgiven for thinking there are millions dying, like in a famine); one can only smile at the I- admit-we-have-failed-but-ordinary-citizens-are-also-to-blame-because-they-show-no-civic-sense line taken by the health authorities, with the ‘ordinary’ citizens interviewed taking a similar rhetorical line, but in reverse (‘Okay, we Indians have no civic sense, but what’s the government doing?’). Often, the anchor rounded off the alleged ‘debates’ by, as usual, blaming ‘the system’, of which we are all  part, of course, and by urging us to be better citizens while government representatives were urged to get their act together. Excellent, except that no edgy, uncomfortable truths were addressed and faced.

Such as why is this famous ghost, ‘civic sense’, so starkly absent? Is it not because of our casteist ideas of personal and familial purity, and pollution removal, never mind the hygiene of the wider, shared public space? Isn’t it true that we, the upper castes, the middle and upper classes, don’t care for the sanitary conditions in which other groups live because we believe them to be by nature and destiny as ganda (filthy) as the refuse and sewage around their localities? What does the private self-provisioning of everything, from healthcare to garbage removal, have to do with the upper and middle classes’ blithe unconcern for the state of public health facilities and services? Is there not a contradiction between wanting municipalities to supply well-enough-to-do folk like us with ‘free or low-cost water’ while more than half of our cities’ populations don’t have enough even for maintaining their basic health and hygiene?

Does not avid participation in the new globalised consumerism make us more culpable when it comes to the management and disposal of its attendant waste? The industries, big and small, we buy our cherished consumer goods from, are they not wilfully polluting our rivers, earth and groundwater? And if so, are we active enough in our concern for the public health effects of ‘eight per cent growth’, among which is the breakneck expansion and densification of Indian towns and cities, long before any, let alone adequate, infrastructure for sewage treatment and solid-waste management is in place?

What makes Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for example, so much cleaner and healthier than the BIMARU North Indian states? Is it not the long history of assertive civic groups, including among the lowest, ostensibly ‘dirtiest’ castes/classes? Or is it simply a function of education and prosperity that are correlated with reductions in population size? Do the poor live in squalor only because they lack income or is it also a function of their lack of ‘social and cultural capital’ of the sorts that would enable them to pressure municipal governments and panchayats, and also permit sanitary and health collective self-help?

In any case, how are the ‘poor’ able to live in and reconcile themselves to all the dirt, filth and squalor that surrounds them? Or is it that they are not quite as reconciled as we tend to think, in which case they should be ripe for mobilisation by social-servicing middle-class citizens, as was the case in Europe’s equally dirty and foul cities in the 19th and early-20th centuries? But then, why have we, the Indian elites, been so miserly with our time, money and skills when it comes even to the classic middle-class civic-associational theme of public health, hygiene and cleanliness? (Delhi’s hyperactive elite Residents’ Welfare Associations are, for example, utterly indifferent to the general state of public health in the city as a whole.)

Indian cities and villages are not, whatever foreigners might say, uniformly dirty. There are in each and every Indian agglomeration, clean, hygienic zones, where government public-health services work efficiently enough. These are testimony to the power of the social elites of our democracy, and the powerlessness of its subalterns. Couldn’t some of  that power be used on behalf of the ‘unwashed’?

We must overcome the fatalistic what to do? It would help greatly if we stopped thinking of ganda and gandagi (filth) so metaphorically, applied not just to filth and refuse but equally to individuals, castes, religious groups, occupatio
ns, actions, beliefs, etc, (gandey log, gandee baat… filthy people, filthy talk. Because this is precisely what makes us keener to individually distance ourselves from the ganda (dirty) than to collectively, unitedly, manage the inevitable mass of gandagi produced in our social life.