My kitchen window overlooks a vacant lot. Like other vacant lots in India, it is covered with plastic bags, old shoes, broken glass, newspapers, and rotting food. Scavengers visit it regularly, some of them as young as six or seven. They collect whatever might be sold or recycled, so what is left is truly trash.
It is a scene that is repeated in every city and town. Waste management is one of India’s most urgent problems, but solutions are elusive and there is little public awareness and cooperation.
In 1994, there was an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Surat, a city about four hours north of Mumbai. More than fifty people died and panic gripped the nation. The antibiotic of choice was soon unavailable as people rushed to buy it “just in case,” and some of those who actually needed it died because they couldn’t get their hands on it.
The disease was traced to Surat’s thriving rat population. Garbage regularly piled up and went uncollected for weeks there, spilling onto the streets and rotting in the blazing sun. Not only rats but flies and mosquitoes flourished in the heat, creating a public-health nightmare.
The same year, Ram and Shila Prasad, a couple from Bihar who had lived in the United States for twenty-eight years, decided to return to India. They left successful careers as engineers in Seattle because they wanted to do something for their country-though they weren’t sure what...