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Among the oldest artefacts dating from the early days of the British Raj is a woodcut-print showing hectic (by the standards of the time) trading activity in the port city of Surat. Situated on the banks of the Tapi river in Gujarat, the city has always been an important one. But since 1970, its growth has been phenomenal. The population of this 12th largest among the Indian cities has nearly quadrupled in the last 2 decades. Along with the flourishing traditional industries of silk embroidery and diamond polishing, the modern ones of textile, plastic, chemicals and rayon industries are now dotting the map of the township. The labour force has multiplied, many of them migrants from neighbouring states.
The results have been predictable: acute housing crisis and a crumbling municipal system. Water supply, drainage, electricity, roads and health care cannot keep pace with the ever growing demands of the burgeoning population. Public spaces are shrinking due to lanes being blocked off for private use. And no one gripes if the roads remain blocked by shamianas (decorative tents) erected for wedding ceremonies.
Surat's affluent urbanites -- some of who are unthinkably rich -- dump their daily refuse just outside their own homes. For them, only their private spaces need be clean, the public place can go to the dogs. Wealth and filth are inseparable partners in Surat.
In many posh, upperclass localities, such as Adarsh Society, one sees large garbage bins installed by the corporation. More often than not, however, the refuse and garbage are thrown outside the bin. In the poorer localities such bins are a rarity and garbage is merrily dumped off at a common point, or even just outside the houses.
Public utilities, such as toilets, urinals and water posts are in a pathetic condition. The few toilets that exist are patently unusable. Their faulty construction and, added to that, the callous misuse by the locals make them into festering wounds on the city's body. The water posts are pools of slush and muck.
The problem is progressional. Bad urinals, or their complete absence, lead the denizenry to turn any available streetcorner into a relieving haven. People defecate in the open. Spitting is a local pastime, and public buildings are special targets. Railway stations, bus-stands, roads and government offices give newcomers the nauseating feeling of having to move about in huge concrete spittoons. And there are no pursed lips or raised eyebrows from any quarters.
The municipal corporation building at Muglisara and the Collector's kacheri (office), known as the Bahumali Makan, are testaments to the wonder of paan (betel leaf) spitting. Every corner, corridor and wall is plastered with paan and spittle. The hospitals, public or private, are nightmares for not just the patients...even dedicated Florence Nightingales would fear to tread in.
The Indians' attitude towards bodily discharges and garbage can be explained by their principles of purity and impurity. Not only persons, but also places, things, flora and fauna and events are ranked hierarchically according to their purity or pollution. In fact, the whole concept of untouchability rests on the principle of purity and pollution.
It is surprising that this attitude of keeping private places meticulously clean, and yet, caring two hoots about public ones even pervades the upper classes of Indians. The toilets in 5-Star hotels as well as in the international airports get no better treatment from customers, despite their upperclass status.
Indians insist upon ritual purity, but that need not necessarily add up to cleanliness or hygiene. The bath taken in a village pond on returning from a cremation, and prior to entering the village, is a ritual, having nothing to do with hygiene.
The attitude towards garbage and household waste is a cultural one in India. It is a mindset. In rural areas also, where space is not a constraint, reasonable hygiene does not prevail. In urban areas this cultural attitude creates insanitary conditions. These aggravate during excessive rains and floods because of the grossly inadequate civic amenities and a careless civic administration. Epidemics, therefore, find a well-fermented bed custom-built for them.
Lancy Lobo is a member of the faculty at the Centre for Social Studies, Surat