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Sunita Narain: Why excreta matters

Indians know little about the water they use and the waste they discharge

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

Water is life, and sewage tells its life story. This is the subject of the “Citizens’ Seventh Report on the State of India’s Environment”, Excreta Matters: How urban India is soaking up water, polluting rivers and drowning in its own excreta. It has a seemingly simple plot: it only asks where Indian cities get their water from and where their waste goes. But this is not just a question or answer about water, pollution and waste. It is about the way Indian cities (and perhaps other parts of the world that are similarly placed) will develop. It is about the paradigm of growth that’s sustainable and affordable.

Urbanisation in India, relentless as it is, will only grow. How should the country manage its water needs, so that it does not drown in its own excreta? This is what the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has asked and tried to answer in the book. What has amazed us is the lack of data, research and understanding of this issue in the country. This is when water concerns all. People in cities get water in their houses; they discharge waste; and they see their rivers die. But they don’t make the connection between flushing toilets and dying rivers. It is as if they do not want to know. But they should.

Is this a reflection of the caste system of Indian society, where removing waste is somebody else’s business? Or is it a reflection of current governance systems, where water and waste are government’s business, and within that the business of a lowly water and sanitation bureaucracy? Or is it simply a reflection of Indian society’s extreme arrogance — it believes it can fix it all as and when it gets rich; that water scarcity and waste are only temporary problems; that once it gets rich, infrastructure will be built, water will flow and the embarrassing stink of excreta in cities will just disappear.

It is clear that Indians know little about the water they use and the waste they discharge. CSE researchers had to collect data the hard way — city by city, ferreting out the material from government offices, which are rarely visited by researchers. The second volume – “71 cities: water-excreta survey” – of the seventh citizens’ report puts together individual city profiles. Each city is mapped to know more about its past, current and future water footprint. Each city is mapped to know more about where the waste generated from such use of water goes. It is a geography lesson that’s essential to learn.

It was way back in the late 1990s that environmentalist Anil Agarwal, who conceived and crafted the “State of India’s Environment” reports, had said one needs to understand the political economy of defecation, where the rich are subsidised to excrete in convenience.

Now when we researched for this report, which explains the political economy of defecation, we were struck by one fact that should make us all angry, really angry. We found countless instances when a city’s drain, called a nullah today, was actually a river. Delhi residents are familiar with the Najafgarh drain, which discharges the city’s waste into the Yamuna. But most of them do not know that this “drain” has its source in the lake Sahibi. Now the Sahibi is gone, and what has replaced it in living memory is a drain carrying only filth, not water. Worse, New Gurgaon is now dumping its sewage into the same Najafgarh jheel (lake).

Buddha Nullah in Ludhiana is referred to as a drain because it is that — full of stench and filth. But not so long ago, the Buddha was called darya (river). It was a clean freshwater stream. One generation has changed its form and name.

The Mithi is the Maximum City’s shame. When floods drowned Mumbai in 2005, the city learnt it had a clogged drain called the Mithi, marred by encroachments. It did not realise that the Mithi had not shamed the city; the city had shamed the Mithi. This “drain”, which originates near the city, is really a river. It was recognised as a river. It flowed like one. But today even the official environmental status report calls this living river a storm water drain. One more city has lost its river. These lost rivers are our collective shame.

But should Indians be surprised? Today they take water from their rivers – for irrigation, drinking and hydroelectric plants – and give back waste. Water no longer flows in India’s rivers, just loads of excreta and industrial effluent.

Indians should be angry over the loss of rivers. More worryingly, if they do not change their ways, they will lose the remaining rivers, lakes and other water bodies. This generation will then not just be pitied for losing rivers, but accused of committing deliberate “hydrocide”. The coming generations will forget that the Yamuna, Cauvery and the Damodar were rivers. They will know them as drains, only drains.  

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First Published: Mon, January 23 2012. 00:48 IST