By JERRY PINTO NOV. 16, 2014



Credit João Fazenda

MUMBAI, INDIA — There is, we are told, a small island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There was, we are told, a fatberg plucked out of the sewers of London. But nowhere in the world is dirt as visible as in India. It is so visible that for many Indians who return from America, even from New York, it isn’t the Grand Canyon or the Met they remember. It’s how clean the streets were.

That’s because you can’t get away from the dirt of India. My city, Mumbai, has an estimated 20 million people. According to one estimate, we produce 630 grams of garbage per person per day — that’s 12,600 metric tons every day. Mumbai is also the richest city in the country, with one-third of the national income tax revenue coming from here. The richer you are, the more waste you produce.

And that’s only talking about the garbage we see. A doctor told me she can’t measure her patients’ Vitamin B levels accurately because fecal contamination through the tap water skews the numbers too much. The city’s 19th-century sewers often run right next to the water pipes and both are porous, and as you learned in Chemistry 101, if two liquids with different degrees of concentration are separated by something with teeny-tiny holes, osmosis will do the rest.

India now has its own clean-up campaign, inaugurated by a new-broom prime minister. This is well and good. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” my grandmother would say to my mother. “Then let’s be godly instead,” my mother would answer, tapping some more ash from a bidi on the floor. No one agreed with her. We Indians are cleanly people, we like to think. Hindus and Muslims alike bathe every day because it’s in the scriptures. We wash our homes every day, and the urban middle class throws out yesterday’s drinking water because it is “stale.” But that’s the private sphere.

In the public sphere, we are consistently awful. Arthur Koestler once said that breathing the air in Mumbai felt like “a wet, smelly diaper was being wrapped around my head.” I returned from Delhi recently, and there I felt like my head had been stuck in the exhaust of a truck. Hundreds of ministers and bureaucrats and workers travel around the city in hundreds of cars, each one in a single car with his or her own driver, each one sighing at the density of the traffic, each one complaining about the quality of the air, not one admitting to being part of the problem.

In 1901, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, as we like to call him, was struck by how the delegates at a meeting of the Indian National Congress in what was then called Calcutta had made the toilets of the house they were living in too filthy to use. Then they turned a verandah into an open-air latrine. Young Gandhi chided them but was told that cleaning the toilets was the sweepers’ job.

Sweepers in India aren’t people who choose to be sanitation engineers. They’re people who are born to be sanitation engineers, and they are not supposed to hope to be anything else. They’re the outcasts of Indian society; “untouchables,” they used to be called, unseeables. Then Gandhi started calling them Harijans, People of God. They have since renamed themselves Dalits, the Broken People or the Oppressed People. Reservations — the Indian word for the affirmative action measures prescribed by the Constitution — may have helped many of them become doctors and lawyers and engineers, but most of the people who clean latrines in India still come from the Dalits. (The toilets on trains open right onto the tracks. After the train has passed, a worker, usually a Dalit, comes by and cleans up.) It is always going to be someone else’s job to keep things clean.

Dirt, it is said, is matter in the wrong place. Then what is the right place for it? We have garbage policies to deal with this, but they are not implemented. Although in Mumbai the government asks residents to segregate rubbish into wet and dry waste, municipal workers often mix everything into the same dumpster.

There are still rag pickers and raddiwallas, the men who buy your old papers, bottles and whatever else you don’t want. Some of these things go back into the system. Old clothes are bought in the cities and sold in the villages. Used electronics get refurbished and returned into the market. CDs are painted over with religious symbols and hung in cars. We continue to recycle and upcycle.

But we can no longer keep up. There’s too much stuff being made now, thanks to the backwash of globalization. Plastic was once an exotic substance, and plastic bags were hoarded and exchanged with ritual solemnity. When I was in the third grade, in 1975, we used chalk on slate for rough calculations. We would write out our lessons in pencil, and every so often would be told to erase them and reuse the notebooks. At the end of every academic year, we would tear out all the unused pages and get them bound as a “rough note” book. No child would be caught dead with one of those now. We’re richer, we’re more style-conscious and we’re dirtier.

I remember my sister’s friend, Alice, and her love affair with the Marlboro Man, circa 1978-81. Alice’s cousin was in the airlines and he once brought their family some goodies in a plastic bag that had the Marlboro Man doing his macho thing on the outside. Alice used the bag for years, carrying her college books in it. One day, I went over to her house and her mother was at the sewing machine. The bag had split at the seam and was being repaired. Today, it would have ended up on the garbage heap or by the edge of a national highway. It would have become someone else’s responsibility.