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#MyCleanIndia – Of Dirt and Cleanliness – #SwachhBharat Abhiyan

Nityanand Jayaraman

108544214-defecation_6The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) is powerful in its simplicity, and problematic for the same reason. The absence of complexity in the presentation of the campaign, and the inherent contradictions between Modi’s consumerist growth agenda and SwachhBharat’s objectives fuels my skepticism and raises many questions: Which parts of India will be cleaned, which not and why not? What will we do with the wastes we remove? Where will we put it?

If cleanliness is to be the result, dirt would have to be the starting point. In a 1966 classic called “Purity and Danger,” anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that “If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. . .It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order.”

Cleanliness is a loaded word particularly in the Indian context with a notion of caste that is fine-tuned around social and physical interpretations of pure and impure, clean and unclean. Cleanliness, in this context, can be achieved by keeping the clean and the unclean separate. 

It is not just things and places that can be unclean, impure, dirty or unsightly. When DMK was last in power in Tamil Nadu, the then Minister of Local Administration M.K. Stalin launched a campaign called Singara Chennai or Beautiful Chennai. Like with SwachhBharat, it is difficult to argue against a campaign to beautify a place we love. But beauty, like dirt, is in the eye of the beholder. Post Singara Chennai, the city is no different now in terms of garbage. But in the process, at least 20,000 slumdweller families have been evicted in the name of beautifying the city; they were relocated to tenements in Kannagi Nagar and Semmencheri which lie between 20 and 30 km from the city. Dirt here is a metaphor that could just as easily refer to people as to material objects.

Given this historicity, simple campaign slogans without sub-text and caveats will remain superficial and perpetuate historical injustices and modern forms of casteism.

The oath that Narendra Modi administered to school children and bureaucrats alike reminds them of their patriotic duty to restore order by cleaning up. “Ab hamara kartavya hain ki gandagi ko dhoor karke Bharat Mata ki sewa karein.” (Now, it is our duty to serve Mother India by removing the dirt.) Where will the dirt be removed to is left unsaid. Everything does not have to be spelled out. If dirt is matter out of place, it will have to be moved to its rightful place.

In all modern cultures, cleaning up merely involves moving “dirt” from one place to another. Five decades ago, cleaning up may have been easier. It would have meant restoring the predominantly organic and compostable discards in the waste stream to its rightful place – namely, the soil – and facilitating its transformation into manure.  Over the past two decades, India has transformed from a sleepy nation living in its villages to an economic powerhouse with an urban population bursting at its seams. We can, as Modi did in the UN General Assembly, invoke our ancient culture to claim that Indians have a special relationship with and reverence for nature. But that does not take away from the fact that Indians or Americans, Hindus or Muslims, we are all worshippers of the same homogenising religion of consumerism. We are what our garbage is. Our garbage which once bore no resemblance to American garbage is increasingly peppered with the same brandnames, the same indestructible material, such as styrofoam and plastics, that can be found in US landfills.

Dirt as a Metaphor

Chennai disgorges more than 6000 tonnes of mixed wastes everyday into what used to be a wetland in Kodungaiyur. The dumpyard is a stinking heap of refuse that assaults your sight and sense of smell. Smouldering mounds of garbage are piled higher than the tallest building in the vicinity. Everybody who can afford to leave this area in search of better living conditions has left. Those left behind are people without a choice or the means to leave.

A pedestrian bridge over a black ooze of leachate that was once the Captain Cotton canal is used by ragpickers and local residents to enter the city’s largest dump. About a 100 metres into the dump, a solid door with auspicious tantric motifs guards a ramshackle hut that is falling apart at the roof and on all sides. Every last item that went into the making of Kamatchi Devi’s house was locally mined, hand-picked by her from the garbage dump within which the house is located. Barely five metres in front of her house runs a stream carrying a foul-smelling reddish-orange liquid — juice from the rotting mountains of garbage stretched out on all sides of her house. Across the juice river is a ramshackle temple to the God of Wars, Murugan.

No matter the wind direction, Kamatchi’s house is assailed by toxic smoke from the perennially smouldering dump. Hers is one of 15 dalit households in the cynically named Panakkara Nagar (Rich Man’s nagar). Several thousand people, including ragpickers, make a living by extracting, sorting, processing and trading in resources relegated to the dump by the city’s consumers.

Across the road from the main entrance to the dump is RR Nagar. About 1500 households live here in squalid conditions. Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board constructed RR Nagar tenements to house Chennai Corporation’s conservancy staff in the early 1990s. The workers refused to move into the dump-view apartments. Eventually, families that were forcibly evicted as the city grew and sent to RR Nagar — the same place where Chennai sent its trash.

A major proportion of these people – the ragpickers in the dump, the residents of Panakkara Nagar and RR nagar, the conservancy workers for whom the government built the dump-view apartments, the oustees who eventually took up residence in the tenements – belong to scheduled caste/scheduled tribe communities. Kodungaiyur itself is in a reserved constituency with a substantial Scheduled Caste population.

In 2010, during a statutory environmental public hearing held for expanding and modernising the dump, the then Mayor of Chennai justified continued dumping at this location. He said that just as our homes need toilets, the city too needs a toilet, and that local residents should be proud of serving the city by hosting the dump.

The Kodungaiyur yard is illegal on many counts. It does not have the statutory clearances under Air and Water Acts from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. It operates in total violation of the Municipal Solid Waste Rules that were notified in 2000. A scientific analysis of an air sample taken in Kodungaiyur in 2012 revealed 19 toxic chemicals, including three carcinogens. Benzene, which can cause childhood leukemia, was found 50 times above safe levels. The fact that the Madras High Court has sat on the matter nearly a decade should be an embarassment to the judiciary.

It is not that such dumps cannot be shut down. In fact, in Chennai, until recently, there was a second dump – also in a waterbody, the Pallikaranai marshland – in Perungudi. Perungudi’s demography has changed considerably since the time that dumping began here. Chennai’s famed IT corridor has now been built on the waterbody within sniffing distance of the dump. When the stench of rotting garbage and the acrid smell of burning trash began assaulting sensitive middle-class, upper caste noses, action began to be taken. Perungudi’s gentrification forced the Corporation to shut down the dump and reroute garbage to Kodungaiyur.

You clean up one place and dirty another. Where you clean and where you dirty will follow the established social order governing notions of worth, value and worthlessness.

Growth is garbage

Garbage and the manner in which it is currently mishandled is a sociological problem. Any real solution to this problem cannot but upset the established social order. That is why local bodies prefer engineering interventions that sidestep the social problem. Elite engineers are called to design modern, industrial waste-management facilities. These engineering interventions are fancy variations of dumping, burying or burning. To make it more attractive, the engineers may call their intervention a sanitary landfill, or package incinerators as waste to energy plants. But be that as it may, one thing is certain: In caste-ridden and race-ridden societies like India and the United States, these self-proclaimed “state-of-the-art” facilities will not be located where people of “worth” live; they end up being located amidst the same communities that were burdened with the earlier version of waste management.

As American sociologist Murray Millner Jr observes, caste-reinforcing notions of garbage in societies like ours may believe that a certain amount of dirty and impurity is inevitable. The strategy here would be redistribution not elimination. In casteless, western societies, Millner writes, the belief is that it is possible to eliminate waste by destroying it. Both have to contend with different limitations. Where the former bumps against a social limitation, the latter is confronted by an ecological cul-de-sac.

Economic growth refers to a growth in the production and consumption of material goods and services. The pace at which natural resources are extracted, converted into consumables, consumed and disposed determines the rate of growth of the economy. The greater the growth, the greater the garbage. The post-consumer waste, which is the preoccupation of the broom-wielding bourgeoisie, is merely the tip of the iceberg. In manufacturing the consumables – be it steel for much needed infrastructure, or electricity or plastic packaging – massive quantities of toxic trash is generated that is disposed on land and inside waterways. Will SwachhBharat deal with just the tip or the whole iceberg?

The iceberg is big, and poised to grow. If Modi’s Make in India dream comes true, SwachhBharat will turn into a nightmare. Just as industries externalise their environmental costs by polluting land, water and air, consumerist economies externalise the environmental and social costs of garbage to politically weak and historically oppressed communities. If the option of dumping on others is closed to us, our consumerist economy will be drowned in its own shit. Attempting a clean up without a strategy to reduce growth or redistribute consumption is like trying to mop up a flooded bathroom without turning off the faucet.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook that the “Clean India campaign is bourgeois environmentalism, superficial and devoid of commitment not unlike the Clean Ganga campaign.” In response, a friend urged me to drop my cynicism and give this wake-up call and our new leader a chance. I promised her I would. But days after the oaths were administered, I still do not see any details added to the call to remove the dirt and clean India.

If the Prime Minister is serious about his campaign, he could add a few more declarations of intent – all of which are far more doable than cleaning the Ganga or the country by 2019. For starters, he could:

  • make the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster a milestone by declaring that he will get the polluter to clean up the toxic contaminated site in Bhopal.
  • announce that other similarly contaminated industrial sites, like Hindustan Unilever’s mercury-tainted thermometer factory and surroundings in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, will also be cleaned up in a time-bound manner at the polluter’s cost.
  • declare that India will eschew activities that generate intractable wastes – like nuclear power plants – and abandon plans for setting up new plants in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Tamil Nadu.
  • commit to phasing out indestructible material such as in packaging even while phasing in alternative material or practices that do not burden the environment.
  • announce his Government’s commitment to ending the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging.
  • commit resources to allow local bodies to pay decent wages and offer better living and working conditions to conservancy workers.
  • acknowledge the contribution of ragpickers and others involved in resource recovery by facilitating their access to segregated discards at or close to source.
  • promote decentralised composting or treatment of organic discards so that a major portion of the garbage stream is diverted from dumpsites or landfills.

If India is to chart a different course than the West, then it will have to lead by pursuing the goals of development with minimal or no growth. It will have to clean up the centuries-old muck of casteism, racism and gender discrimination as part of the SwachhBharat campaign. It will have to drastically curtail consumption among the minority class of overconsumers to enable growth-less development. No number of broomwielding schoolchildren will be able to clean India as long as our government pursues an economic model that exploits nature.

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