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Indian activists push for clean cities

The Washington Post

As more Indians travel the world and their country’s growing economy and population gain more global attention, they are increasingly embarrassed about one of India’s dirtiest features: its cities.

It is not uncommon to see piles of putrefying garbage lying along the streets in front of fancy glass-fronted malls, luxury car showrooms or the gates of exclusive neighborhoods. Just as common is the sight of Indians walking past the smelly heaps, covering their noses with the edge of their saris or handkerchiefs and waving the flies away.

Many Indians routinely chuck empty cigarette packs, plastic wrappers or cans from their cars. Even religious sites often dump waste. Open, stinking drains in residential neighborhoods choke with household trash.

With India’s creaky municipal management system already stretched and government response to the teeming trash patchy at best, the problem will only worsen, analysts say. More than 600 million Indians will live in cities by 2030, up from a little more than 350 million today. Indians generate more than 55 million tons of solid waste every year, and that figure will increase to 240 million tons by 2047, according to the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

But there is a new push for change from some quarters.

Neighborhood volunteers, schools and activists in big cities are organizing like rarely before to clean up India. They are staging sporadic cleanup drives at markets, beaches and railway stations. They are telling people not to litter, asking families to separate waste from recyclables and using smartphones to photograph and report uncollected garbage to the government.

Even the ministry for tourism launched a drive to keep areas around heritage monuments clean.

The momentum is at least in part generated by Indians who believe that the grimy cities give India a negative global image and clash with its hopes of becoming a 21st-century economic power.

“There is an unspeakable amount of filth around us. We must shake up our numbness to it,” said Robinder Sachdev, who leads a campaign called Come, Clean India, which tries to link similar efforts across India under a single umbrella. “Some momentum is building up among the educated middle classes in the big cities. They are becoming aware that their global aspiration is not consistent with their tolerance of filth.”

Four years ago Jairam Ramesh, a senior government minister, shocked many when he said Indian cities were the world’s dirtiest, and “if there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt.”

Such candor on the subject is unusual in Indian politics, and the federal and local governments have done little to address the problem on a broad scale. But as Indian cities grow, the middle class is demanding better quality of urban life, cleaner streets, more playgrounds, street lights and better safety for women.

Vishnu Sinha, the general secretary of the residents association in one New Delhi neighborhood that is home to 1,800 families, said he has had “dozens of meetings” with local officials who repeatedly promised to collect the waste that piles up outside his community’s gate.

Pradeep Khandelwal, chief engineer at the government-run New Delhi Municipal Corp., said: “People don’t follow rules. Instead, they find it easier to complain, shift the blame to the government. On our Facebook page, we have given the garbage collection points and timing, but people still ignore that.”

Other cities are seeing anti-garbage activism, too.

In Mumbai, dozens of students, activists and Bollywood stars help clean up the beaches the day after an annual Hindu festival in which hundreds of thousands of devotees immerse idols, plastic bags and offerings in the sea.

In October, villagers residing near suburban landfills outside the southern city of Bangalore — once touted as India’s answer to Silicon Valley — protested their living conditions and blocked trash trucks. Heaps of uncollected garbage in the city’s streets swelled to such a magnitude that they impeded pedestrians and drivers alike.

To placate the protesters, the local government ordered residents to separate recyclables and compostable material from household waste, which would have reduced the volume at the landfills. But it has failed to enforce the order.

Some researchers are now trying to find out why Indians behave the way they do.

Since August, a group called Saaf India Foundation has conducted tracking surveys to study the behavior of trash-throwing railway passengers in India.

And some in the tourism industry say that the garbage problem is overstated — and, in fact, might be part of the adventure of traveling in India.

“Our lack of cleanliness is a problem, but that will not scare foreign tourists away,” said Subhash Goyal, president of the Tour Operators Association of India. “If tourists want to see everything clean and sanitized, they would go to Singapore. They come to India to see how 1.2 billion people live in their natural habitat. They are mentally prepared.”