Filthy, deadly mayhem in India

Pollution in Delhi

By Graham Peebles

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 milieu 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 more than seven million 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.

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. 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 (World Health Organization guidelines for urban areas are around 50 decibels – “anything above 85 dB accelerates ear damage”), 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. According to WHO figures, in 2010 a total of  231,027 people died on the roads of India. Families – three, four and five, with school bags and the daily shopping – 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 per cent of the population have no toilets). Millions defecate in the holy river every day, as well as using its 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 among 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”, the New York Times reports. 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 reports.

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 reported. And the situation has deteriorated further in the years since his damning comment.

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 per cent 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. As the Hindu says, “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,” generating “a 71-per-cent increase in malaria cases in the last five years”.

With economic growth, levels of waste increase (on average, for every additional 1,000 rupees of income, solid waste increases by one kilogram 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 Wastes 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 of 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. But, in keeping with government neglect, state corruption (local and national) and lack of legislative implementation, to date none of India’s cities have complied.

According to the Hindu, “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”.

Nobody wants landfill sites near their homes. In Hyderabad, officials have been engaged in talks with local residents for 10 years now without success. Burning of waste by privately contracted operators, an environmentally unpopular remedy “worse than the disease”, is being phased-out in industrialized 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 is quoted as saying in the 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 of people took to the streets in nationwide protests, and roads leading to waste handling facilities were blocked. From Jammu in the north-east 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. It is time to sound the horn of change, India.

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