Garbage. Shit!

Trash in the Pondicherry Canal

Fred Hsu, who has just returned to the states from India, raises an interesting issue on his blog today, when he wonders whether India will be able to “retain its rich culture” in the face of the sea of filth that its people wade through each day. It seems to me the Indian waste problem is as much a function of culture as an enemy of it.

The sad fact is: the overwhelming (OVERWHELMING!) majority of Indians are habituated to garbage in the streets, in parks — in any place that is not their private domain. No one seems to mind walking through it, and certainly none seem to give a second thought to contibuting to it.  Littering is an activity as common and casual as drawing breath.  There is an absolute disconnect here between compulsive personal hygiene and the utter lack of public hygiene. When Deepak Chopra declaims that, despite its rich, visible, and celebrated history, “India is not a spiritual country,” I think of this discrepancy as Exhibit A.

In a post last spring, I wondered whether, like one of those twins-separated-at birth experiments, we could look at the differences in public hygiene between magnificent Lahore and squalid Amritsar — which both lay in the Punjab, on opposite sides of the imporous India/Pakistan Border, barely 60 kilometers apart — as a matter of culture; that is to say, of nurture rather than nature.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 20% of all communicable disease and more than 80% of diarrheal disease in India is caused by drinking water contaminated as a result of poor sanitation. According to Indian Government statistics, more than 90% of all rural dwellers (who comprise 63% of India’s total population) have no access to toilet facilities. And anyone who has been through a major metro in India will know that the filth from human waste in the urban setting is, if anything, more alarming, particularly in poor neighborhood and slums. Garbage is also a major contributor to the contamination of water sources and the breeding of rats. Waste management in India is a disaster. As recently as 1994, India suffered an epidemic of plague in Gujarat. I’m not sure whether the public health burden of India’s lack of public hygiene has been estimated, but the potential cost beggars the imagination.

It is true that there is a large amount of waste recycling in India. It is done, however, in circumstances that are neither efficient when compared against the vastness of the littering habit, nor socially conscionable. “Rag Picking” is the model, and it is a subsistence activity on which members of the lowest caste and destitute women barely survive.

Rag Picker
Recycling Indian style: a rag picker can earn a few rupees a day collecting discarded plastic trash on the streets

There is, of course, an important causal difference between the proliferation of garbage in public places and the problem of human waste disposal. The former is entirely a function of indifference, selfishness, and ignorance; the latter is principally a result of inadequate infrastructure, especially to serve to poorer communities, in a country of more than one billion people. How either problem could exist in a country whose political independence was lead by Gandhi-ji, who was a tireless champion of public hygiene, is as astonishing as it is tragic.

But it’s not all bad news. Read Yoo-Mi’s blog post today for an excellent profile of an NGO close to our heart — and to our home, since we live on the roof above their office. Shuddham is a small, but vastly energetic group focusing on urban sanitation, recycling of solid waste, and composting of kitchen waste and other organic material. In Shuddham’s “Beautiful India” program, I think you’ll see how this modest start may mean enormous, and welcome change ahead. It is no exaggeration to say that, thanks to Shuddham, we are able to recycle more of our garbage here in Pondicherry than we are in San Francisco.

Shuddham Crew
Recycling Shuddham style: the crew collects segregated waste for nearly 100% recycling or composting, and teaches those who live in the neighborhood how to segregate their trash for easier collection and sorting.

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3 Responses to “Garbage. Shit!”


  1. 1 Fred 18 December 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for so eloquently elaborating on the exact thoughts I had running through my head, and sharing the name of that NGO. Shveta and I really wanted to find a way to help with the problem, and this sounds like a great organization.

  2. 2 mbjesq 18 December 2006 at 11:33 pm

    For those interested in helping, Shuddham has applied for FCRA with the Government of India (which will allow them to receive foreign funds) and are applying for 501c3 tax exempt stastus in the US. So soon, donations will be tax deductable. For the meanwhile, informal contributions to Shuddham (non-tax deductable) can be passed through Yoo-Mi and me.

    Anyone who visits Pondicherry should certainly stop by the Shuddham office at 6, Rue Bellecombe and introduce themselves to Porbir, Ajit, Bhupi, Puru, Maya, Rajaram, Sebastian, and the women on the streets that are making the Beautiful INdia program such a wonderful success.

  3. 3 Police Tank Driver 25 July 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Why Doesn’t India clean up its act? Unless the people like this lifestyle. Wallowing in feaces everyday.


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