‘The subcontinent of garbage’ – this is how the Indian subcontinent is often referred to in the local press. And it’s no wonder: Waste can be seen everywhere in Indian cities, especially in poor neighborhoods – in alleys, streets, and squares, there are plastic boxes and plastic bags, brightly colored packaging and food waste, old newspapers and cardboard boxes.
But waste does not just accumulate in the cities. Local roadsides will one day allow the archaeologists of the future to easily get to the bottom of how the eating habits of the residents of the ‘biggest democracy in the world’ have evolved. All kinds of packages from different varieties of cookies, the ubiquitous plastic bottles, rustling plastic bags that once contained a cornucopia of sweets, chewing gum, and chips – all such things are often thrown out on the go, ‘decorating’ roadside ditches and railway embankments.
However, waste is still disposed of in the so-called good districts. It is done by representatives of the traditional caste occupations, waste collectors, rag-pickers, and cleaners, for whom the mountains of waste are a source of income, and one that is quite substantial by local standards. Garbage is sorted and laid out: waste paper, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, and rags and old clothes that are washed and mended. Anything that can be reused is resold. But whatever cannot be reused, even by the waste collectors, is often thrown out again on the streets of poor neighborhoods, where it lies in the hot southern sun for years, condensing into a homogeneous gray-brown mush.
The attack of the waste
New Delhi, the country’s capital, is particularly affected by ‘aggressive waste.’ One of the sanitation workers’ colonies is located in the middle of the diplomatic quarter, with hills of sorted wastepaper packs and pyramids of bags full of rags visible from afar, greatly surprising the guests of diplomatic missions and embassy villas. The caste of rag-pickers settled here a long time ago – long before the sprawling diplomatic quarter surrounded it on all sides. City authorities have tried several times to resettle such ‘non-diplomatic’ neighbors, but the residents of the ‘waste quarter’ stubbornly resist and do not wish to leave.
The statistics are startling: The official and the unauthorized city dumps add up to 10,000 tons of waste every day. Journalists estimate that it means 2,300 trucks daily. However, the volume of waste is growing along with the population, and it is expected that by 2025, the daily waste volume will have reached 4,700 truckloads.
An Indian journalist once told the author of this article that, traditionally, garbage in India was thrown out onto the street (as it once was in many European cities), and the hot Indian sun would then dry it into dust. But, with the advent of modern plastics, packaging, and cardboard, this ‘garbage disposal system’ no longer works. Yet the tradition remains. To this day, in many Indian cities, it is not considered reprehensible to throw garbage right where you stand or to relieve yourself right then and there without any shame of passersby. Waste is often dumped into rivers. For instance, Delhi is situated on the Yamuna River, considered sacred by the Hindus, but even approaching the riverbank is an unpleasant experience – the ‘sacred waters’ smell like an old gutter. Nothing, except bacteria, has lived in this river for a long time.
The problem is not simply the prosperity of a particular family or its education level. Many residents of wealthy neighborhoods do not even want to wait for garbage collectors to pick up garbage bins or bags with trash from their front door. Wealthy citizens would rather send a servant to throw out garbage in the backstreets.
However, the problem, clearly, is not only with the habits of Indians themselves, but with the outdated system of cleaning the country’s waste, based on the traditional caste system. Most Indian cities do not have a modern centralized system of waste collection and disposal from every household. In Delhi, for example, garbage is fully collected only from about 25% of the area. Dragging packages to the authorized landfill is a long trip. So, it is no surprise then that any vacant lot or abandoned courtyard is turned into a landfill by residents of the neighboring districts.
Still, a problem exists even with the waste that is being collected. Three of the four major landfills near the capital have already gone over capacity and need to be closed. But there is no space for new landfills in India, which is already overpopulated.
The problem is not unique to New Delhi. In Mumbai, for example, the mountains of waste are so large that littered suburbs are now frequented by leopards from the Sanjay Gandhi Reserve next door – the predatory cats wander around in search of food and pose a threat to people living nearby. In addition, the air in the ‘economic capital of India’ is quite polluted, not least because of the incineration of rubbish.
‘The capital of new technologies,’ the city of Bangalore in the south of the country (sometimes called the Indian Silicon Valley), along with its computer software, electronics, and Internet technology, also produces 3,000-4,000 tons of waste daily. The problem of space for storing waste in this booming city is so acute that the government even thought at one time to requisition territory situated on the outskirts of the Tataguni estate founded by artist Nicholas Roerich’s son, Svetoslav Roerich, and his wife and Indian movie star, Devika Rani. Svetoslav Roerich intended to establish a museum on the estate, but some local politicians decided to use the 450-acre manor park as a landfill. Thanks to the efforts of the Russian Embassy and the Indian public, the museum managed to fight off this attempt.
Experts say that every citizen of the ‘largest democracy in the world,’ depending on their age and affluence, ‘produces’ from 200 to 600 grams of garbage every day. This waste material is gathered in overflowing landfills, discharged to blind alleys, urban backstreets, and along roads and railway lines, causing complaints from municipalities about the impossibility of collecting and cleaning up all the garbage scattered in and around the city.
While officials complain that the environmentalists are sending an SOS signal, degradable waste will not help improve the already difficult sanitary and epidemiological situation in the Indian cities. And if this goes on, garbage will begin to displace people.
Stars with brooms
“This is no exaggeration. According to various sources, the cities of India produce 100,000 tons of solid waste daily. The government spends from 500 to 1,500 rupees per ton of waste: 60-70 percent of this amount is spent on garbage collection, up to 30 percent more on transportation, and only the remaining approximately five percent is spent on recycling,” said Vladimir Ivashin, expert at the Center for Indological Studies at Moscow State University, in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine.
Most of the waste is burned or buried, said Ivashin. It is, therefore, not surprising that the need to find space for landfill sites in this populous country is so acute. In addition, a large-scale campaign against garbage would require a radical change in the attitude of Indians towards waste and clean streets.