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COVER STORY Cleaning up India By SHRIKANT RAO in Mumbai Sometime in the early-1990s during the course of an interview this writer had asked Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, a hypothetical question as to how he would have expected the Indian Army to deal with a Pakistani invasion. The old warrior had without a moment’s hesitation snapped, “I would simply ask the boys to line up along the border and pee – and the enemy would be swept away by the tidal wave.” It is not difficult to view that comment as braggadocio induced by spirits – or to those more charitable, the chutzpah of a general going over the top after a resounding victory in battle. In Circa 2014, only a fool would be convinced of the appropriateness of such sweeping statements. For not only is the neighbour on the other side of the border impossible to flush away with a post zip pulldown act, there is a bigger threat for New Delhi to contend with from a domestic enemy who shows no signs of retreating: a constantly growing monster of an unclean mess created by a billion plus men, women and children across the country. Indeed, India today sits on mounds and rivers of garbage and filth – and this has absolutely nothing to do with the army from the other side of the fence. As early as 1964, VS Naipaul, in what seems like a takeoff from Winston Churchill’s wartime speech, wrote, “Indians defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.” Fifty years after that assessment very little seems to have changed. Witness the following statistics: Close to 600 million Indians, or 48 per cent of the country’s population, defecates in the open. This is against 15 per cent in Afghanistan; 8 per cent in the sub Saharan African country of Congo – and hold your breath, a niggardly 3 per cent in neighbouring Bangladesh which our very own Sam and his valiant men liberated in December 1971. What further defies explanation is that while the nation expends up to $26 billion on food, barely $200 million is spent on sanitation. More than 68.8 million tonnes of trash is generated by urban India alone; the plastic waste littered each day across the country is in excess of 6000 tonnes; to add to the environmental degradation is the fact that more than 78 per cent of the sewage remains untreated and is disembogued into water bodies such as ponds, lakes, rivers and ends up seeping into the soil. Such extremes of filth accumulation speak volumes of Indian sanitary best practices, if it can be called that. The result is there for all to see. The open defecation and lack of waste disposal has led to poor national health – as seen from widespread incidence of diseases like encephalitis, diarrhea, malnutrition, growth impairments in children – and consequent loss of productivity, with as much as 6.4 per cent of the country’s GDP being directed towards medical expenses. According to an assessment by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme each dollar spent on sanitation leads to a saving of nine dollars in health, education and economic development. A proper sewerage system is virtually non-existent across most Indian urban agglomerations thanks mainly to the lack of treatment facilities and inadequate water supply. Such is the irony that the call of telephone assumes greater importance in India than the call of nature – there are more people with cellphones for communication than toilets for defecation. NOVEMBER 2014|construction opportunities 11
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