Watch your waste

(Below are excerpts from an article in The Hindu by Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren of Dalhousie University, Canada; ‘Watch your waste’, Sept 6 2014)

In his Independence Day speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly espoused the idea that one of the biggest obstacles in the formation of our national character is the filth that surrounds us. This, as he himself recognised, would seem to be an uncharacteristic and trivial matter for the prime minister to weigh upon on the most important day in the nation’s history. Nevertheless, he thinks it is critical enough to ask 125 countrymen to “resolve not to leave a speck of dirt in our village, city, street, area, school, temple, hospital...”

There are a couple of fundamental problems with the prime minister’s exhortation. First, it makes it seem that dirt and filth is merely a cultural problem, a defect in the national character that can be rectified by moral reform alone. Thus he asks: “If the countrymen decide that they will never spread filthiness, which power in the world has ability to spread filthiness in our cities and villages?” This leads to a narrow understanding of filth as dirt and litter spread carelessly by the common people, which, among other things, become a major barrier to promoting tourism as Modi emphasised. And second, Modi’s good intentions of cleaning up the country are at complete odds with the other thrust of his address which wants to see India as a world power by making it a manufacturing and digital hub, and a tourism destination.

Understanding this big and long-term picture of how societies come to be what they are is vital. This does not mean that piecemeal changes like adoption of better hygiene and sanitation, an absolutely critical issue in India, without larger socio-economic transformations will not prevent the loss of easily savable lives. After all, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death of children under the age of five worldwide — 2,195 children every day — more than AIDS, malaria and measles put together.

Nevertheless, cleanliness is not only about adopting better practices of hygiene but also about confronting the gigantic nightmare of filth in the form of trash and waste (and all manner of pollutants) produced presently in the process of production and consumption. By ignoring this aspect of the production of filth, Modi is missing the picture. Filth is wrongly associated only with poverty and backwardness. Waste is an almost inalienable byproduct of urbanisation and industrialisation driven by capitalism. Urban residents now produce as much as four times the waste of rural inhabitants, and developed countries produce far more waste than the developing nations.

In this context of unbridled production and consumption of goods as well as production of trash with grave human and ecological costs, it is extraordinary that Modi appeals to the world: “Come, make in India,” “Come, manufacture in India,” everything — automobiles, plastics, submarines and satellites. Basically, it is a call to traverse the path already trodden by the Western countries in the beginning, followed by Japan and S. East Asian countries later, and China in the present, all leaving an almost irrevocable trail of destruction in its wake. Thus, for example, in America, after two centuries of industrial “progress”, 40 per cent of its waters are rendered unfit for fishing or swimming, two million children are susceptible to neurological damage caused by heightened lead levels and one million cancers could be caused by pesticides in food alone.

Of course, the prime minister wants us to “manufacture goods with zero effect” on the environment. But, pray, where in history is an example for such a win-win developmental utopia? Or where in India are signs even remotely recognising the need for an environmentally sustainable mode of production as well as waste disposal? This call to manufacture with zero effect is even more ironic when, as commentators have pointed out, the Union Environment Ministry has only recently diluted the already weak regulations existing with regard to mining, road construction, power and irrigation projects including the requirement to seek consent of the gram sabhas, while mining in forest areas!

The grandest of the prime minister’s dreams are about the making of a “Digital India” which would establish e-governance, especially for the rural citizens. But will “Digital India” tread gently on our planet and eliminate all the filth that surrounds us? This utopia too does not seem to be materialising. While the production of electronic goods is itself enormously energy and resource intensive (it takes 2800 gallons of water and 700, mainly hazardous, chemical compounds, to produce one PC), electronic waste is the fastest growing component of waste in the world. According to the UN’s Step Initiative, the volume of e-waste — which contains toxic material like lead, cadmium, nickel, mercury and arsenic — will weigh as much as eight of the great Egyptian pyramids by 2017.

This is not surprising in an age in which we are asked to “think different” just by buying the latest mobile phones and computers. An estimated 300 million computers and 1 billion mobile phones are produced annually. A 2009 report by UN’s Environment Program projects e-waste in India from computers to go up by five times, and from mobile phones by 18 times by 2020. What do we do with this waste? The developed nations can dump them in landfills, or just dump huge quantities of their e-waste on the poorer nations leaving them to deal with it along with their own. Where do we dump ours?

What kind of a “Digital India” does the prime minister have in mind when 90 per cent of e-waste is recycled in the country in the informal sector with a non-existent legal framework? Here, poorly paid workers work in the most hazardous of conditions contaminating themselves and their surroundings. What dreams are we asking the 4.5-lakh children working with e-waste to dream when they are unwittingly sacrificing their lives for our digital future?

Finally, when Modi stresses tourism as a magic wand which will give “employment to the poorest of the poor,” he ignores that global tourism, and the resultant increased air travel is a major contributor to climate change. Without a simultaneous emphasis on sustainable tourism, the increased tourist flock to India will only be participants in the destruction of the ozone layer, half of which is already caused by air travel.

Filth, thus, is not only about leaving a speck of dirt in our surroundings but also about the structure of production and consumption, unprecedented in human history, which produces gargantuan amounts of dangerous waste and pollutants without comparable advancements in their elimination. Unless we address this systemic crisis, we will be peddling utopias of cleanliness which can be realized by merely putting trash in the garbage bins while the WHO ranks 13 Indian cities among the 20 cities in the world with the worst air pollution!

Box matter

Garbage and Capitalism

(Excerpt from Dr Nissim Manathukkaren’s article ‘Garbage as Our Alter Ego’, Nov 3, 2012)

In the mythologies of modernisation and development, we sing paeans to skyscrapers and nuclear plants. But there is no accompanying dirge about the costs we have had to pay for them. If there was, then we would have heard of Puente Hills — the largest active landfill/waste dump in the United States, which is a 1,365-acre monstrosity — as much as we have about the World Trade Center or the Empire State Building.

It is ironical, Edward Humes tells us in his book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, to call Puente Hills a “landfill,” for the garbage mountain has long ceased to fill a depression in the land and rises now an unbelievable 500 feet above the ground, a space capable of holding 15 million elephants. It takes, of course, a gargantuan effort, as Humes describes, to keep the toxic substance that leaks out of the 130-million tonne waste (which includes 3 million tonnes of soiled disposable diapers — another “important” invention of modern life) from poisoning groundwater sources.

Nevertheless, waste is seen, in popular development discourse as a “third world” problem, the ubiquitous mountains of garbage that blight the face of cities and towns in the poorer parts of the world — one of the first tasks that the newly-elected President in Egypt had was cleaning up the garbage mess in Cairo. And the citizens of the third world have internalised this discourse, seeing themselves as part of the “dirty” developing world blissfully unaware of the cost at which a “clean” developed world is maintained. Thus the story of the Somali pirates plundering the high seas has become a part of global lore but not that of Somalia being a (cheap) dumping ground for some of the most toxic garbage, including nuclear and medical waste, from Europe for the last two decades and more. As long as the streets are clean in Frankfurt and Paris, does it matter that children are born in Somalia without limbs?

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