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What (or Whom) to Blame for India’s Polluted Localities?

October 11, 2010

I don’t buy the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee Secretary General Lalit Bhanot’s assertion that Indians’ standard of hygiene is different than foreigners’ standard of hygiene. Bhanot caused a national outcry when he claimed that spectacularly filthy accommodations in the Commonwealth Games Village were acceptable to Indian inspectors but unacceptable to foreigners because, “They (foreigners) want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may differ from our perception.”

Can Bhanot’s assertion explain the ugly condition of neighborhoods throughout the country?

Residents routinely deposit their trash in gutters and at street corners, creating  unhealthy conditions. Such litter impedes drainage, and mixes with human and animal excrement, creating ideal breeding conditions for diseases and disease vectors. Here are examples of common conditions:


Litter jeopardizes children's health

Litter jeopardizes children's health



Litter obstructs drainage

Litter obstructs drainage



Uncollected trash accumulates at an intersection

Uncollected trash accumulates at an intersection



Garbage along the ECR, Pondicherry

Garbage on the East Coast Road, Pondicherry


Is this state of affairs due to Indians’ peculiar standard of hygiene, as Bhanot’s assertion might have us believe?

I don’t think so.

I think Indian neighborhoods are filthy because local authorities fail to implement and enforce the Government of India’s Municipal Solid Waste Management and Handling Rules. Enacted on 3 October 2000, the Rules mandate daily, house to house collection of segregated waste. The Rules also mandate composting of biodegradable waste, and recycling of recyclable materials, in order to minimize the burden on landfills and safeguard public health.

Are Indian officials violating their own waste management laws because their standard of hygiene tells them filth is fine?

It’s more likely that Indian officials don’t take waste management laws seriously because the laws have never been enforced. No official has been punished for not enforcing or complying with the rules, despite the fact that the rules clearly assign responsibility and specify penalties.

Any society will quickly become filthy if municipal waste collection services are interrupted or are done poorly. The question we must ask is not, “Why are Indian neighborhoods so filthy?” Rather, we must ask, “Why don’t Indian authorities implement and enforce the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules?”

In localities throughout the country, waste management contracts are given to private contractors who collect mixed garbage and transport it to open dumpsites, where waste ignites and smolders, creating hazardous dioxins and furans. Such practices violate the nation’s MSW Rules, yet such practices continue.

Unfortunately, Indian officials didn’t take the Commonwealth Games crisis seriously until a bridge collapsed, injuring dozens of people. Will it take a comparable calamity to make authorities take sanitation seriously?

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