Environment awareness in India's small towns is an apathetic mess

-- (Credit: Photographs: Arvind Yadav /CSE)A CAPITAL City such as New Delhi, ranked the third most polluted city in the world, draws more attention than a filtt neigbbourhood locality. Yet, the environmental aspects of f many small towns and villages contribute to make a maj impact on the environment of the country.

For instance, towns such as Varanasi and Agra in the nor and Madurai and Mysore in the south find themselves in the spotlight from both national and international perspective either because of their religious significance or their tourism potential. But the impression retained after a visit to the cities is of an environment that leaves much to be desire Keeping this in mind, a detailed study of Aligarh, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, was conducted to enquire into the common problems faced by the residents on the environmental front.

Aligarh is known mainly for its seat of learning-the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The city, spread over an area of 34 square Hometres, is also an important Centre of locksmithy.

The town has a population of nearly half a million, according to the 1991 census. And the indiscriminate 'growth which is a hallmark of Aligarh has left its impressions on the environment. On account of its being an important Centre of locksmithy, and other allied industrial functions like electroplating, casting, the town is besieged with rural migration. However, the town's infrastructure is such that it is unable to take on the extra load thereby resulting in a major breakdown of sanitary conditions.

Though a basic av@areness of cleanliness exists among the majority of the population, they are unable to carry it through. (Nearly 28 per cent of the town's population lives below the poverty line - household incomes ranging between Rs 500 to Rs 1,500 per month - and another 34 per cent bordering the poverty line-household incomes ranging between Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,500.) Their lack of education combined with low earning capacities prevents them from forcing any action from the authorities that matter-such as the muncipality. Fakir Chand, a resident of Bhuki Sarai, a small mohalla (small locality) in the old city, who earns Rs 40 as daily wages, complains: "Nobody listens to us at the municipality. The municipal sweepers do not even come into 'z our area to clean it. Every week, a few of us get together and clean the filth ourselves."

Lack of space, a growing population and poor 81 infrastructure, has led to appalling sanitary conditions all over the town, even in the prestigious university area. The Aligarh survey sponsored by the Centre of Science and Environment, New Delhi and the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, reveals that out of a composite score of 12 for assessing household conditions, only 4 wards out of a toW of 40, which consist of 7.6 per cent of the town's population@,had more than 75 per cent of the houses in the best category. The overriding considerations of assessing the household c6nditions were the factors of water supply and sanitation fatilities. And in both areas, the town was found wanting.

Groundwater which is ihe main source of drinking water is supplied to the residents either through pipes or hand pumps. The municipality which operates 35 tubewells, directly feeds the water into the. town's distributive system. According to Rajiv Rautheria, Aligaih's City Magistrate, some 50 MLD (million litres a day) of water is generated by the tubewells.

The municipality contends that water is supplied at the. rate of 200 litres per capita per day. However, many areas of Aligarh receive only 4-6 hours'of water supply. In fact, for the nearly 100 families of the Haburas tribe residing behind the Kotwali, near the Jamma Masjid, easy access to any form of water supply is non-existent. They have to travel even to procure water and timings for the supply is irregular. Says Dharamveer who makes a living out of polishing shoes, "The water comes from 3 am to 7 am and on some days none at all."

The low water supply is on account of the poor distribution system, machinery breakdowns and power supply failures. But the quality of the water supply - both piped and from hand pumps, have shown that they contain an alarming level of bacteria and faecal coliform content which is far above the limit prescribed by WHO guidelines.

According to WHO limits, drinking water should have a zero faecal coliform count; the survey revealed that 65 per cent of the handpump water samples contained a faecal coliform count of more than 2 MPN/ 100 ml and only 6 per cent of the piped water samples had a count of less than this limit. Shockingly, inspite of having deeper aquifers, piped water supply which is available to nearly 75 per cent of the population has a higher faecal coliform content, mainly because the distribution system is in a state of utter negligence. Water pipes leak in many areas. And Teela, a mohalla in Upper Kot, even had water pipes bandaged by the local residents with bits of cloth. In most areas, water pipes are submerged in sewage or else run alongside open drains and stinking nullahs (drains).

A visit to the City Magistrate's office revealed the fact that it was not even aware of the submergence of the water pipes in the sullage. During low pressure, there is dien an ingress of raw, untreated sewage into the leaking pipes, thereby leading to water contamination. Strangely, though facilities for chlorination of water exist at certain points along the city's water distribution system, it is more often than not left undone, exposing the Aligarh residents to further danger.

"The city sewerage system has completely collapsed," says Professor R H Siddiqi, one of the principal co- investigators of the Aligarh Environment Study. As the city continues to expand, there is no concomitant upgrading of the city's sewerage system. The city's waste water empties into the Municipal Sewage farm on the outskirts of the city on At" the Iglass road en route to Mathura. While the city's drainage system is divided into 4 zones, only 3 are partially sewered while the fourth zone is totally unsewered. Further, the drains, especially the main sewer in zone 2, are choked for the past few years leading to a sluggish flow of the waste water. And during the rains, the sewage over- Y flows and spreads all over the area leading to a slow but steady JM, groundwater contamination The stormwater drains are all also tapped into the main wwer- "M age system in certain places which means that the drainage system gets clogged with silt. The main drain which runs along the boundary of the city meets a small tributary of the river Yamuna. However, because of the choked sewers en route, the gradient flow of wastewater remains sluggish and the town area is frequently flooded with the sewage leading to the outbreak of diseases like cholera and malaria.

Sewage water is filtered only for solid wastes and this is then let untreated into the 35 acre Municipal Sewage Farm where veg- etables like potatoes, carrots, cucumber and cauliflower are grown on a large scale. These vegetables are exported to surrounding towns, even as far as Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Though a Sewage Treatment Plant situated in the Nagla Barola village on the outskirts of the cities was constructed in the mid-eighties in order to treat sewage water flowing from the university area, it has not been commissioned to date.

Says Mohammed Akbar, the chowkidar (watchman) of the plant, "While the sewage water comes up to the plant, it is let into the university farm untreated. This has affected the productivity of the plants. The mango and guava trees which usec: to fruit earlier have stopped giving us ftuits for the last 7 to 8 years now. Thewheat fields which existed here are completely dry. All this is mainly due to the dirty water supplied to these plants."

Stinking infrastructure
Prevailing sanitary conditions in the city are such that open defaecation does not raise any eyebrows. "When means do not exist, what more can we do," questions a resident of Shishiya Para, a mohalla adjacent to the Grand Trunk road. The Aligarh survey lists 16.3 per cent of the population as not having access to any form of toilet facilities. As a result, a substantial chunk of the population practices open defaecation. And this is not limited only to poor areas of the town. It is also a fact that a sewer line empties a certain section of the sewage including faecal matter literally at the doorstep of the Haburas tribe which resides behind the Kotwali near the Jamma Masjid.

The city is also pockmarked with heaps of garbage dumps along important roads and lanes. At times, vacant plots serve as a garbage dumping site, bang in the middle of residential localities. Areas behind the Aligarh railway station - mainly occupied by the poorer sections of the society - are eyesores with rotting garbage in several vacant plots, scavenging dogs and swarms of flies. A nauseating stench completes the despicable scene. Amazingly, naked children merrily cavort nearby oblivious of the stench and filth. Even places in localities which fell into the best category such as Civil Lines which houses the AMU served as dumping sites for the garbage. Admits Rautheria, "Aligarh is one of the most dirty cities in the state of Uttar Pradesh." He has devised certain measures to ensure that there is daily collection of garbage and has served stringent orders that those safai karam-charies (garbage cleaners) who do not comply have to face action. He listishortage of funds as another reason for the city's unclean appearance.

The highways of the city also act as garbage dumping sites. Trucks laden with the city's garbage come this far and empty their contents right on the road. The system of sanitary landfills is non-existent in the city. Figures on the daily collection of garbage in the city remain nebulous as no account is maintained. While in certain areas of the city, garbage is collected once a week, other areas especially in the localities of Bhuki Sarai, Bihari Nagar and near Kotwali do without any garbage collection. This is in spite of a World Bank aided garbage dis posal system in place. Claims Rautheria, "The muncipality is short of sweepers (it currently has 1,800 on its payrolls) and the up government has issued a ban on new recruitment."

Noise population is another major inconvenience for the residents of Aligarh. With nearly 55 per cent of the city's working population involved in commercial activities, most industries function in households. In the densely populated location of Upper Kot in the middle of the city, nearly every house has a centre of lockmaking facility either for doors or cycles or is involved in keymaking activity. Women of the household also participate in the process in most cases. But this has meant that the noise levels are exceedingly high even in residential areas leading to a host of concurrent illnesses including deaf- ness and damage to the nerves.

Wastes and waterlogging
The uncontrolled growth of Aligarh has affected the natural drainage system resulting in periodic flooding in many areas. While the rains accentuate the problem, there is no seasonal demarcation for waterlogging. It is present almost throughout the year especially in the low-income housing areas. During the survey, nearly 70 per cent of the households complained about waterlogging, mainly due to overflowing sewage drains.

Waterlogging in Aligarh has created a disturbkig situation for the small villages surrounding it. With many areas in the city affected, new constructions have frequently sourced the soil of villages to raise the plinth levels of buildings and roads.

Large quantities of earth are brought into the city daily from the surrounding villages for both construction and agricultural purposes. But for these villages, the loss of agricultural lands is incalculable. Rough estimates put the yearly inflow of earth into Aligarh at an ,Astounding 265,000 cubic metres. Nearly 530 ha of agricultural land in other villages have been put to non-agricultural use as the survey reveals.

Land in villages at a greater distance from Aligarh use up to 63 ha for brick kilns and the bricks made are transported to Aligarh. Thus the surrounding villages while nurturing the city of Aligarh are themselves facing a shortage of land and cowdung. A very important fuel, cowdung, is used by 35 per cent of the city's population. So the villages lose not only their hold on agricultural land but also the means to fertilize it. A bird's eye view How representative is, Aligarh of other towns and cities in India? :Surveys conducted by National Institute of Man Affairs (NiuA) across the length and breadth of the country demonstrate that while Aligath is relatively representative of the state of noithern towns, cities in the southern part of ln&4!i@re comparatively cleaner than their northern counterparts. As Dinesh Mehta, Director, tjiuA, puts it: "It has more to do with the culture'o@ the community than its location."

All over the Indian scenario, while more stress is given to harnessing water resources in small towns, not much thought is given to adequate water drainage. The result: wateTlogging becomes a serious issue threatening the existence of agriculture and endangering the health of the people as many water-borne diseases make their appearance. The only remedy seems to be mass movements by residents, which in the past has shown itself to be effective in waking up the authorities to some action. But people in Aligarh limit their action to blaming the local government for not providing adequate facilities. While it is true that the final responsibility rests with the government, past examples prove that it is enveloped with a sense of abject apathy when it comes to providing the populace succour in the form of bare necessities like sanitation and clean water. Funds provided for various schemes often line the pockets of officials.

The importance of environment consciousness and care cannot be overstated in small towns in order to achieve a living in a state of hygiene. Unless this truth is recognised, cities and towns across India would remain versions of Aligarh with only the degree of filth standing at variance.

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