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Jacob Murphy and India’s Problems

September 19, 2010

I’m enjoying the images on Jacob Murphy’s photoblog ( Jacob is posting photos taken during his visit to Mumbai. Many of his photos are outstanding. I particularly appreciate that he’s taking his camera (and his blog’s visitors) into slums and back alleys–places outsiders would never see—and giving us surprisingly beautiful glimpses of India.

However, I’m irritated by Jacob’s analysis of what he’s encountering. On his 13th day in country, in simplistic, Tom Friedman fashion, Jacob pronounces, “India . . . has many problems. It all boils down to infrastructure. The system is too convoluted and circuitous for funding to reach the places that need it most.” (india: day 13: NGO school, mumbai)

It all boils down to infrastructure?

Let’s look at one of India’s biggest problems, garbage management. India’s alarming garbage crisis is growing swiftly. The present volume of garbage produced annually is expected to increase by a factor of five by 2050. Many roadsides look like this:

garbage dumped by roadside near Pondicherry

Garbage dumped by the roadside near Pondicherry

Trash clogs drains:

Drain filled with garbage in Pondicherry

Trash clogs a drain in Pondicherry

Vacant lots are used as dumping grounds

vacant lot littered in Pondicherry

Vacant lots commonly become dumpsites

As Jacob has noticed, open defecation is common in India. Human shit mixed with garbage clogs drains, forming fetid puddles that are ideal conditions for the breeding of pests that spread diseases. The trouble continues when trash is dumped in open sites. Mixed waste ignites and smolders, forming dioxins, PCBs and furans, which accumulate and travel in the environment, contaminating food and people.

Waste burning in Pondicherry's dumpsite

Waste smolders in Karuvadaikuppam dumpsite, releasing toxins

Does this all boil down to infrastructure? No, it doesn’t. It’s more complicated than that.

Although a decade ago India enacted some of the world’s best solid waste management regulations–guidelines that mandate daily house-to-house collection of segregated waste, composting, and recycling–authorities in most localities don’t implement the government’s rules. This might be a short-lived problem if derelict officials were penalized, but no authority has been punished for violating the municipal solid waste management rules. The government doesn’t police itself. Officials violate the rules with impunity.

Could infrastructure solve this problem? Could landfills make India clean? The World Bank-administered Water and Sanitation Programme believes so. The WSP advocates the construction of regional landfills large enough to hold all waste from up to 20 localities for up to 20 years. But the WSP’s proposed solution begs the question, “What then?”

A landfill in Mavallipura, near Bangalore, constructed by Ramky Infrastructure Ltd., and opened in January 2007, provides a cautionary case study. The landfill was supposedly designed to last for 20 years, but already is overflowing and has caused major environmental and health problems in its vicinity, leading neighboring villagers to protest by blocking the road leading to the landfill, and locking the landfill’s operators in a building. For details, see the Environment Support Group’s report, Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy: Investigating Mavallipura’s Illegal Landfills. (

On the outskirts of many localities, dumpsites and landfills have become battlegrounds for skirmishes between locals and landfill operators because of pollution. Recently, Pondicherry’s notorious dumping ground in Karuvadaikuppam was closed by protestors until the Pondicherry police restored access—a shocking example of the police facilitating an unlawful act—the dumping of unsegregated waste.

In the case of India’s garbage crisis, the problem doesn’t boil down to infrastructure. Rather, the problem is largely one of government inaction.

I encourage others to visit Jacob’s photoblog. And I encourage Jacob to study India more seriously before drawing conclusions about the nation’s problems.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 8:58 am

    touche, brooks. you make some very compelling points here. you are absolutely right about the government’s negligence. but wouldn’t you say that government and infrastructure are synonymous?

    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      September 23, 2010 9:04 am

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for visiting my site and commenting. I’ve checked my thesaurus: government is not listed as a synonym for infrastructure. I would like to know what camera or cameras you use. Your images are great.

  2. February 2, 2014 1:53 am

    Where in India is this?

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