Published: April 11th 2012August 31st 2011
Apart from the sensual overload of sights, smells, noise and people, probably the first thing a foreigner notices on arrival in India is the pollution and litter. Even amongst the decrepit housing, animals wandering the streets and the unwholesome smells, it is often the litter and garbage that stands out most notably. In his 2003 publication ‘Rewriting Indian History’, Francois Gautier put forward the theory that, as a spiritual leader of the world, India and its inhabitants have a reputation for being more introspective and inward-looking than other peoples, which is why the beautiful country has such little regard for its environment. Internal happiness aside, trash has created utter turmoil in India’s external surroundings.
Deforestation levels are indeed unsustainable in many parts of the country although, admittedly, Indian landscapes are in far less danger than the rainforests of South America. Nevertheless, consumption levels are at breaking point.
It is easy for a foreigner to cast a downward eye on this aspect of India, but this may be hypocritical under the surface. Despite all the conservation projects and national parks, Western countries tend to act in exactly the same way as India with regards to litter, but they are simply
better at hiding it. Just because Westerners have made it customary to use bins doesn’t mean that they produce less waste than India. The amount of fresh food consumed in India everyday per person far outweighs that of western countries. On the other hand, the amount of pre-packaged food, non-recyclable containers and consumer products in the West per person far outweighs that of India. Fresh food markets in India’s cities also mean that it is not just subsistence farmers and rural Indians that continue this trend.
Western countries skilfully burn off garbage with colourless smoke or they float it out to sea or even send it to India. In 2009 more tonnes of Western waste were imported to India than India produced itself. Some cities on the West coast have large workforces dedicated to this waste processing or even simply waste hiding. Meanwhile India’s own garbage tends to pile up on the streets.
The train from Delhi to Bangalore passes large dumping grounds of open air garbage in Madhya Pradesh. These dumping grounds can be found in the West but they are managed so that, at least for the meantime, they stay well away from residential areas.
Because of methods like burning with colourless smoke in the west, people cannot see what they are responsible for creating. A comparison can be drawn with old people’s homes in the United Kingdom, which tend to cut off death from the ordinary working day life and hide it away. This is opposed to much of Asia where death is often part of everyday life out in the streets. The United kingdom government looks after the elderly in large boarding houses so that professionals and families can continue their careers uninterrupted, but it hides the reality of illness, death and pain from people for much of their lives. It is no wonder that it is said that Indians in particular are better at dealing with illness and loss of relationship, because, on the very streets one can see illness, death and poverty.
On the other hand sanitation in India is far less developed than the West, with urinating on the streets being commonplace throughout India. In the United Kingdom this is an offence and the public are mostly vigilant. You will rarely see a sign in a European country saying ‘Do not urinate here’, whereas these signs can be found
all over India, which is a testament to their attitude. In one slum of Delhi, images of Hindu Gods are painted onto walls to stop people from urinating on them.
Even some of India’s most famous tourist sites are tainted by litter. You can see drinks cans and plastic bags decorating the edges of waterfalls in Shimla, on the way to the beautiful Monkey temple. Even in the jaw-dropping Himalayan area of Kashmir the crisp mountain air can be overcome with the stench of rot and waste. In Pahalgam, East of Srinagar, hotels and vendors shamelessly pour their rubbish out into the hillsides.
It’s not just locals, however, because some tourists, especially trekkers, have a tendency to be just as careless. In Ladakh, a predominantly Buddhist and agricultural society where litter is almost sacrilegious in the views of both locals and most tourists, the trekking trails can be strewn with litter and the Capital city Leh faces problems of water pollution. The society is, however, relatively successful in minimizing waste. The state is almost polythene free and plastic bottles are actively discouraged.
For the rest of India, it is inevitable that plastic will scar the countryside for
years to come. Although the more urban of animals such as the sacred cows of the cities and the camels of Rajasthan have taken well to extracting food from trash piles, wildlife is likely to suffer immensely in the future. Perhaps India’s waste problems on the surface are, however, simply an exposure of the West’s waste problems. Although hidden from us, our waste is likely to resurface eventually. Indeed, is the floating island of waste in the Pacific Ocean just a small forerunner?
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