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. For Ram, that decision was made by the events in Surat.

“We arrived here in the middle of the plague,” Ram told me. “It was chaos, and I realized that someone had to do something about the garbage. India had never developed systems for waste disposal because, traditionally, we had so little waste.” Now, all of a sudden, we had a lot of it.

When I first moved to India in 1981, plastic bags were unheard of. We carried cloth bags to the market whenever we bought vegetables or fruit. Every now and then we got a plastic bag from a foreign friend who had bought chocolates as a gift at the airport. We treasured those bags, washing them carefully so we could use them again and again.

By 1994, all that had changed. Every vegetable vendor had a supply of plastic bags and every small grocer knew he had to supply them or lose customers. Overnight, we all gave up the habit of carrying cloth bags, as if we had never done it at all, and plastic bags were suddenly everywhere as trash.

So Ram set up a small not-for-profit organization called Pramukh (the word refers to the headman in a village). It provides a daily collection service for household waste. Though the concept is similar to the collection service in most U.S. cities, Pramukh is quite different. There are no garbage trucks. Pramukh uses cycle rickshaws, fitted out with two bins-one for compostable, organic kitchen waste; the other for potentially recyclable trash. Each rickshaw is invariably followed by a member of the ragpicker community. For a small daily fee (the arrangement is worked out with the rickshaw puller) the scavenger gets “first dibs” on whatever is collected: tin cans, old bottles, newspaper, rags. The organic waste is taken to a central place, composted, and sold back. The rickshaw man (they are all men) sometimes operates a side business, unclogging drains and cleaning septic systems for houses on his route. (The more enterprising triple their monthly income this way.)

Where I live, Pramukh has flourished and now has thousands of subscribers. Many other areas, gradually convinced of the importance of regular waste collection, used Pramukh for a time and then set up their own collection services. Ram sees this as a victory. If he had his way, Pramukh would be put out of business as each neighborhood designed its own waste-management system.

But there is still much to be done. In my neighborhood, few families sub¬scribe to Pramukh. “It costs thirty rupees a month!” one neighbor protested when I caught him dumping trash in the vacant lot next door. He is not poor, and thirty rupees is a small amount of money, but as long as there is a vacant lot nearby, he’ll continue to use it as a dumping ground.

India’s trash crisis has much to do with the sudden burst of consumerism that multinationals have fostered here, with an emphasis on plastic and packaging. But the deeper reasons have to do with a gradual erosion of some of the nation’s dearest held values, an erosion that is partly welcome and partly distressing.

India is signing on to a Western model of fast foods and throw-away consumer items (diapers, razors, disposable cameras), so that the garbage is mounting in alarming heaps all over the landscape. But India is also moving away from the caste system in which the “untouchables” dealt with the filth everyone else created. India’s elite has no idea how to deal with garbage since it has never had to before. There was always someone around who silently removed it from sight-what happened to it or where it was put was of no concern.

Now that fewer people are willing to deal with vastly increased quantities of trash, the wealthy are at a loss. They continue to blame the unsightly accretions on the poor, but Pramukh has revealed some hard facts: the wealthier the area, the greater the quantity of garbage. The data are so clear that Pramukh has different pricing and collection systems, depending on where you live. For slum neighborhoods, the rate is 35 percent lower and collections are half as often. That’s more than adequate for the only people in India who still know how to recycle and conserve.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2007-11-09 issue: View Contents
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