Field Note – Communities
It’s no secret that pollution is a problem, both in the U.S. and India. As I wrote in my last Field Note, the presence of trash has become an almost integral part of the Indian environment. The way people deal with their solid waste (including plastics, metals and even human and animal products) is a huge issue in India, one that is evident in the air and on the streets. There are a lot of places within India that I haven’t seen, but if the places I have seen were at all representative of the state of waste management in this country, I’d say there is a long way to go. Some deal with their waste better than others, but on the whole there is a huge discrepancy between what the country envisions for itself and what is actually happening.
It’s important to withhold judgment when contemplating this problem, especially since it is such a different culture than our own. Comparing the state of India’s pollution to that of the U.S. and beyond would be unhelpful because they are so different in so many arenas. In Hyderabad, for instance, I witnessed the most insensitive treatment of land that I’ve seen in my life. People burn trash in fields, toss their trash in gutters, urinate on the side of roads and drive vehicles that spew smog into the air. At first it felt like a completely different world. But after living there for a while and learning more about its history and development, it almost began to make sense. Hyderabad is a city in transition, moving from a long history of homegrown tradition to a new era of technological advances and a global outlook. Because of this, the disparity between rich and poor, old and new, clean and dirty is extra striking.
Instead of thinking about right and wrong, it’s better to look at what has been done and what is left to do. Of course, there are a lot of things that Indian communities can do to improve their methods of garbage management. This much is evident by just taking a walk down the nearest street. In many places, trash ends up on the ground instead of in a dustbin (their common name, instead of “garbage can”). This is not because people are negligent, but because there often aren’t dustbins around to be used. (The only places I saw them placed regularly and effectively were Delhi, Goa and in train stations, but I’m sure I missed some elsewhere.)
Recycling bins are even harder to come across. I only saw one in public during my time in India, in a major city in Goa. I assume the metropolises throughout the country would have some sort of recycling plan, but they’re hard to notice outright. Plastics and metals go in the same bins as everything else and presumably stay that way. As far as I can tell, the same is true in individual homes. In my home stay, everything went out in the same bag and ended up in the same bin. Bhavani always tried to hang on to things we could use again, like cereal boxes, water bottles and food cans. (She often made them into toys for Tanvi, the most impressive being a doll castle made from cardboard and painted orange.) Aside from individual efforts, I don’t think there is an official way to recycle in Hyderabad. It would take a lot of work not only to round up all the trash but to then separate it into what can and can’t be reused. It doesn’t seem like a priority for many cities. Those that rely on tourism have much more interest in pursuing these types of endeavors, but I can’t see them being widespread enough to make a difference nationally.
One thing I do appreciate is the use of reusable bags. Many stores give cloth bags to customers, which can be used from then on for any purpose. Several stores charge a small fee (around Rs. 5) for plastic bags as well, so people often carry reusable bags for this purpose. Even though many grocery items are packaged using a lot of plastic and will be thrown out later, at least they’ll be brought home in a bag that will be used again.
These actions have an effect on the environment and therefore on the people who live there. As mentioned above, villagers often burn piles of trash on the ground (including plastics, which can contain any number of toxins). The air suffers from this pollution, resulting in the smog that so many people have to shield their faces from. The same is true of the water. A friend studying environmental science told me about a study she read, stating that an uncomfortably high percentage of Hyderabad’s water was polluted with pollutants ranging from toxins to human excretions. Very few people drink the tap water, opting instead for filtered or bottled water. At my home stay and on campus we used big water jugs, like those used in a water cooler. Bottled water is cheap (Rs. 30 for a large) and sold everywhere, which is convenient and safe. Unfortunately, this means bottles are tossed everywhere and rarely reused. It’s frustrating to see this cycle of pollution perpetuated.
It’s easy to think that India is backwards for not realizing how much damage its citizens do to their home. However, I’ve come to believe that the public recognizes the negative effects they exert on the environment. People love their land and are proud of it, but are reluctant to change their ways unless there is an easier alternative. Young people on the whole make efforts to promote awareness of and solutions for the pollution problem. They reuse what they can and support efforts like sustainable agriculture and material production. A friend from Hyderabad opened a community arts venue nearby, floored with a mix of cow dung and mud and furnished with all natural unfinished wood. It generates very little trash and draws many due to its earthy vibe. Efforts such as these prove that sustainability can be cool and easy.
I’ve heard that rules have been made tighter over the years about environmental regulations, although it is hard to tell on observation. At the university, dustbins are becoming more prevalent, even if the trash still lands outside them. This happens off campus as well, as more cities are taking responsibility for their waste. I believe that in the next few years, India will take even more action to ensure that something is done to prevent further damage. This is necessary in order to be taken seriously in a global context.
It’s hard to draw a consensus from different people about the trash issue because it is not something that people contemplate on a daily basis. It just becomes a part of life to toss a wrapper onto the ground when you’re finished with it, even if there’s no chance of its biodegradation. The whole thing sort of exists as a mystery. I haven’t seen a garbage truck at all during my time in India, which worries me. It’s hard to tell whether one’s trash ends up in a dump/landfill or just deposited on the side of the road. Waste management is clearly a huge issue in India as it is just so visible to anyone who visits. It is important to think about it without judgment in terms of the local culture, the extent of the problem and the possible solutions for it. This is one of the few topics that I think India can learn a lot about from other nations, and I look forward to the progress that can and will be made in India’s future.