Friday, January 12, 2007

Why do we irrigate the pavements?

A month ago, our photographer and I were in Varanasi to gather material for a story I was working on. It was not surprising to me or should be to any north Indian that Varanasi is a city with poor sanitation. The two features of poor sanitation in Varanasi that stood and stank out to me were the fact that almost half of the male denizens of the city chew pan Banaras wala and that almost all of the male populace openly pee on the sides of the busy streets and motorways.
'So what's new about it?’, you might say. 'It happens almost everywhere in India, including Delhi'.
I heard someone say a few years ago that there are days in summer when there is more water in zillions of rivulets of urine on Delhi's footpaths than in the Yamuna. Quite true, but there is a small difference. Delhi does have a number of 'public conveniences'; Varanasi doesn't have any. In our two-nights-three-days stay there we could not spot a single public convenience. So it is perfectly 'natural' and 'legal' for the male populace of the ancient holy city to relieve themselves in full public view, in broad daylight, and in the middle of the daily bustle of life.
One thing reinforces another. If you can 'normally' pee on public pavements, what can you not do? Can you not defecate in public places? Can you not spit on roads and pavements? Can you not litter the public streets? We know all of this happens in Varanasi and the rest of India (there must be some exceptions, I reasonably expect).
The majority of the male population of Varanasi, being the greatest pan chewers on Earth, very normally sluice the roads and streets with prodigious amounts of untreated, potently herbaceous, blood-red liquid that is produced in their mouths by the chemical reaction between their saliva and the piquant potpourri of herbs that a Banarsi pan is. So much so that you can see almost the entire surface area of all roads permanently dyed red....... right up to and within the Banaras Hindu University campus.
Obviously, the streets and roads of Varanasi could be as littered and filthy as you could expect any Indian city (with exceptions) to be ---- without raising an eyebrow that is, because it's perfectly normal part of our existence.
In standard English, all the phenomena cited above come under the rubrics of 'Sanitation and Hygiene' and 'Lack of Civic and Hygienic Sense'.
Why do we Indians urinate, defecate and spit on and litter public places so 'normally' and unashamedly?
Broadly, for two reasons. First, because we have either no sanitation facilities --- latrines, urinals (with underground sewerage), drainage for places where we use water --- or inadequate sanitation facilities.
Second, because we are disgustingly insensible and selfish when it comes to keeping our own living spaces clean. Every instance of unpunished peeing in a public place, spitting on roads and littering legitimizes more peeing, spitting and littering until the whole place begins to stink.
In upmarket Connaught Place, there is a paid NDMC public convenience on the Parliament Street, roughly opposite Hotel Park. The interesting thing about this urinal is that more people (that is men), including the guys like you and me, prefer to urinate on the unpaved stretch alongside the footpath leading to the public facility than in the urinal. But don't forget to make the conscientious distinction between the haves and the have-nots. Don't forget, for example, that millions of 'floating' people of Delhi --- daily labourers, slum dwellers and suchlike --- have never had any sanitation in their entire miserable lives. Where does your chowkidar (night watchman) go to relieve himself over a cold night and early morning of duty?
I recently found that a ride in Delhi Metro from Rithala to Shahdara is a lovely learning experience for journalists, environmentalists, anthropologists, town planners, policy makers, policy advocates, human rights activists, and other personages entrusted with the task of administering the human civilization. The ride beautifully and panoramically unveils the shame, filth and stinking underbelly of Delhi's life.
After the Netaji Subhash Place Metro station and Prem Badi Pul comes on the left side a long stretch of 'ganda nullah', which has the appearance of a man made canal carrying filthy water.
In the manner of the world's great river valley civilizations, this filthy-water canal happens to stagnate alongside the long stretch of a huge slum of kuchcha and pucca dwellings. The Metro ride commands a clear and open view of the slum women washing their clothes from the 'canal' water, men and children bathing (even diving and swimming in summers), and performing other water-related daily activities there.
The shore-side is made up a mountain range of embedded garbage where you could clearly see people, particularly men and children, urinating and defecating. The scenery becomes complete by the tall sooty columns of smoke rising from the industrial area behind the slum and untreated liquid and solid effluents flowing out into another ‘ganda nullah’ that perpendicularly intersects the filthy water canal at Ashok Vihar.
Do you wonder why these people are using the filthy water of the filthy-water canal for their daily use? I wondered too and it took some time for enlightenment to dawn on me.
It's because they have no other source of water to use. They don't get piped water from Delhi Jal Board.
Here's a question for the next Civil Services preliminaries.
Do people use sewage water for their daily needs?
Yes they do.
I recently put this 'profound understanding' before the Director of an eminent environment research institute while we were discussing the lack of basic services for most Indians.
"Do you know sir, I have actually seen people using water from....... (stumble for the proper words)".
"Sewage," comes the right word from the other side of the line.
"Yes, I've seen people using sewage water for their daily needs."
UNDP's latest human development report states that Indians' access to sanitation is worse than that of Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh, a country mostly despised by the world as dirty poor, has done strikingly well in not just providing basic sanitation services to its people, but in overall human development. Pachauri told me that Bangladesh has become a model for the world to emulate in many areas of development.
Recently, I also confronted a senior Planning Commission official with my Varanasi experience. He was obviously not surprised and admitted that India's progress in providing sanitation to its people has been a signal failure. And he had absolutely no answer to offer to the problem. He, in fact, pointed out that you can hardly build any more latrines in Delhi because the city's sewerage system is already groaning with the sewage generated by the 1.25 crore of its people (and growing).
There is not much hope here friends, but keep engaging your minds.

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