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T N Ninan: Why reports are garbage

Narendra Modi is not the first person to have thought of “cleaning” India. If you Google “waste management in India”, one of the things that pops up is a Wikipedia tract called “Solid waste policy in India”. The “policy”, we are told, specifies the duties and responsibilities of cities and citizens, for hygienic waste management. The starting point was a report prepared in 1999, and submitted by a committee to the Supreme Court, which asked that its recommendations be followed. What resulted was the framing of the policy in 2000. Examples of the wisdom in the policy: the best way to keep cities clean is to not dirty them in the first place; hence, a city should not have street bins! In line with this, littering and throwing of garbage on the road was “prohibited”.

As with all “time-bound” programmes, a strict time-table was laid down. Existing landfill sites were to be “improved” by end-2001, new landfill sites were to be identified by end-2002, and waste-processing facilities were to be set up by end-2003. Municipalities were to ensure “community participation”, there was to be no manual handling of waste, and dry waste collection was to be left to the “informal sector”. There was more, all based on high principle and all of it politically correct. Municipalities were to charge for waste collection (except in slums), on the “polluter pays” principle, with the charges indexed to the cost of living. And finally, the Supreme Court would ask the various High Courts to monitor compliance.

Since it is difficult to make all this up, one must assume that the Wikipedia item is faithful to the facts – which tell us a lot about India’s plans and how they get lost in a city’s (or the country’s) skunkworks. Take any railway train out of any city, look out of the window, and see the unbearable filth alongside the tracks. You will then recognise the futility of all the committees and even courts. Most cities today are able to treat only a fraction of their liquid waste, the bulk of which gets dumped untreated in hapless rivers. Some, like the Yamuna flowing through Delhi, have become little more than open sewers. Sometimes, in the way these things happen, the sewer lines empty out into the river upstream of the city, so the stuff gets right back into the city’s waterworks. Among the most common things found in the water supply of Indian cities is E coli, the source of which is faeces. Think of what you may be drinking.

It is easy, therefore, to understand why Mr Modi told an election rally in Mumbai during the state election campaign that he had no time for grand plans (or planners, he might have added). You could even argue that he has done more than any planner or committee or court, simply by mentioning the subject of cleanliness from the Red Fort and then picking up a broom. But the questions won’t go away. Has Mr Modi thought about the consequences if his excellent programme to clean India succeeds?

If all the streets and by-lanes and police stations are swept clean, where will you dump the refuse? Who will recycle it? If everyone gets toilets (so that you don’t have to look out of your railway window and see long lines of male squatters with plastic water bottles), do we have enough water to flush them down? And if you do, think of the increase in sewage, most of which is already untreated when discharged into rivers. Or do we need water-less toilets? Even as he focuses on sweeping away many things with his new broom, Mr Modi must recognise the need for “plans”, which is short-hand for systemic solutions that complement or guide his problem-fixing approach.

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