The monsoon session of Parliament has been a damp bit of business as the Opposition protests over Pegasus and farmers’ stir. Both are important issues, and the first one has the added attraction to Indian drawing rooms, as the government’s snooping on media workers and politicians is chic without being dangerous immediately to one’s life. It is, all told, a fashionable event even if untoward.
The farmers’ strike, now on its seventh month, seems not going anywhere, because the government now — certainly not now, with Rahul Gandhi driving a tractor to Parliament in the company of a few farmers in protest, and thus openly politicising the issue — cannot be seen to be buckling to their demands.
Both these issues are, for want of a better word, civil.
Buried in one of the inside pages in many national newspapers though is an issue that refuses to go away even as rich businessmen like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk look to celebrate the best in technology to make, in the final count, a commode out of outer space, and even planets. In India – a country that nearly sent a rocket to the moon, and then, having missed that large and shining thing by a couple of kilometres, shot off another to Mars, hoping, surely, it would land if only because it is a larger target – shit is still scavenged manually, and waste is piling up on the roadside of the ‘most advanced’ states like Kerala. The aspiration of the very rich to leave the earth is metaphorically an escape from the shit we continually contrive to conjure from the most innocuous urges: bowel movements – a metaphor for consumption and ejection.
Last Wednesday, Social Justice Minister Ramdas Athawale, in the Rajya Sabha, replied to a query that there have been no deaths from manual scavenging in the last five years. This would have been reassuringly true, had it not been false. Bezwada Wilson, Safai Karmachari Andolan convenor, deep from the pit as it were, refuted the minister: at least 426 workers died, Wilson said, “cleaning human excreta during this period”. Wilson demanded an apology from Athawale, and a statement from the prime minister, always in a bit of a pit himself, “addressing the issue”.
In a truly sophisticated society, the discussion might have been equable gender representation or some such in this area of specialisation – though, of course, a truly sophisticated society is not likely to have manual scavenging.
Sadly, we are not sophisticated. At all. Over 400 people dying in five years in the line of duty is a sign of a high-risk profession. That most still don’t have the gear for this work is a horror story, second only to the fact this country with its bunch of chic intellectuals venting, appropriately enough, from their toilet seats on everything under the sun, when deep and directly down are men working to make it all disappear, and disappearing themselves.
It is not shit, of course. All kinds of waste are piling up by the wayside. Solid, wet, carbon, plastic. We have no idea what to do with the apocalyptic after-effect of consumption. Narendra Modi, a man rather obsessed with cleanliness in a country that believes the idea of cleanliness is all about shifting dirt from point A to point B, without actually eliminating it, and, frequently, in fact, adding to the compilation in transit, periodically calls out for “garbage-free week”, etc. Poor man.
A World Bank study revealed that India was the world’s highest waste-generating nation. According to a 2016 estimate given by the study, India’s annual waste generated is likely to touch 387.8 million tonne in 2030 and 543.3 million tonne by 2050. These are figures and they mean nothing, really. The point is simple: we don’t know what to do with shit and its associated avatars.
Yet, the technology is available, and it is less complex than sending rockets that miss the moon, or Pegasus-enabled snooping; and less expensive than might be involved in desecrating – which, as it happens, is the same as beautifying – Central Delhi. It involves incineration and recycling. That’s it. In countries like Norway and Sweden, where waste is nil, their incineration and recycling plants are underutilised. Perhaps India can feed them and enter into arrangements to use the end products that they could export back?
But that is later, if and when we wake up before sunset. Right now, India must decide where shit (a figurative term, I hasten to repeat) is going and how to get rid of manual scavenging. A legal clamp on it would not be enough, as we already know. But how can we do that when we do not have basic sanitary resources like water and infrastructure? In upper-middle-class residential areas, like in Gurgaon (where I stay), there are apartment blocks and colonies whose sewage pipes suddenly stop a call away in the middle of some field. The field. Always everything in India ends in a field: vast, without shape, unattended.
It is not as if the administration or even Parliament, now discussing Pegasus and farming crisis with chutzpah, is not aware of, well, shit happening. The most powerful men in the country must still make the daily motions. But it is just that no political party finds it a topic good enough to make a rousing speech.
Under the circumstances, the least that the social welfare minister could do is not to deny the deaths happening in the pits. In any case, what are they doing there in the first place? It is not the rocket, stupid, it is the toilet.
(CP Surendran’s novel One Love And The Many lives of Osip B is available now in stands and on Amazon.)
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