Activists tell Indians to clean up their cities

As more affluent 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 malls and luxury car showrooms, and at the gates of many exclusive neighborhoods. But 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.

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Many Indians routinely throw empty cigarette packs, plastic wrappers or cans from their car windows. Even at religious sites, waste is often dumped into rivers, lakes or the streets. Open, stinking drains in residential neighborhoods are choked with household trash.

With India’s creaky municipal management system stretched thin 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, compared with 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 urging 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 federal Tourism Ministry launched a campaign to keep areas around heritage monuments clean.

The momentum is at least partly generated by Indians who believe that the grimy cities damage their country’s image abroad 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 the country under one 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, a senior government minister, Jairam Ramesh, shocked many when he said that Indian cities were the world’s dirtiest and that “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 a better quality of urban life, cleaner streets, more playgrounds and improved safety for women.

On Wednesday, Sachdev’s group organized a cleanup drive at an engineering college in New Delhi.

“Most of the time, I just complain about how dirty the campus cafeteria is. This is the first time I have actually done something about it,” said Niharika Gupta, 19, who led dozens of students carrying brooms and buckets.

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

“Sometimes they come once in three days. By then the garbage is overflowing from the bins outside the gate and spilling out into the streets. Imagine entering a neighborhood and the first thing you see is this pile,” Sinha said. “The amount of littering and garbage generation every day is humongous.”

But he added that he struggles to instill certain habits among residents — such as not throwing refuse on the street.

Anti-garbage activism is evident in other cities, 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 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. Uncollected garbage in the city’s streets swelled to such an extent that the heaps 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 authorities have failed to enforce the order.

Now, Meenakshi Bharath, a candidate for the state legislative assembly, is telling voters to separate waste as she campaigns ahead of polls in May. Voters call her “the garbage queen,” she said.

Some researchers are trying to better understand Indians’ attitudes toward litter.

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

“Indian passengers do not like the sight of garbage around them, so they immediately throw it out of the train,” said Shammy Jacob, co-founder of the project, which works informally with a consortium, including the Indian Railways and the Washington-based World Resources Institute. Trains are so crowded that there is often no space for trash cans, he said.

Some in the tourism industry say that the garbage problem is overstated — and that it actually 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 Indian Association of Tour Operators. “If tourists want to see everything clean and sanitized, they would go to Singapore.”

 
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