Acentury ago, Mahatma Gandhi lamented that the Indian city was mostly a stinking den, and Indians as a people were not used to city life. The squalid urban landscapes of the 21st century, with mountains of garbage merely relocated to the suburbs to maintain “clean cities”, would seem to prove that not much has changed since then. The quest for clean cities has only grown more complicated, as steady urbanisation is putting pressure on a poorly prepared municipal administration system, and the more affluent consumers produce ever-higher volumes of trash. The neglect of social housing, sanitation and water supply has ensured that there is nothing like a truly clean, green and sustainable city. It would not be fair, of course, to dismiss the efforts of cities such as Mysuru, Chandigarh and Tiruchirapalli, which have scored the top three ranks in the competition organised by the Swachh Bharat Mission of the Ministry of Urban Development to choose the cleanest cities for 2015. In fact, with the high level of political will now being shown to address the problem of waste and filth, there has never been a better time for State governments to act. Beyond the cosmetic solution of removing waste to landfills or releasing untreated sewage into hidden waterways, however, the challenge is staggering — even with the 1.04 crore household toilets and five lakh community and public toilets to be built, the sewage treatment capacity in cities would have to be expanded by 63 per cent. The scenario is equally depressing for solid waste, since only 20 per cent of it can be treated scientifically at present.
The Centre’s decision, against this background, >to ask fertilizer companies to sell municipal compost is among the more promising initiatives to stem the rising pile of trash. Cities can take a leaf out of international best practices, and encourage communities to create food gardens in every area possible using this resource. At the very least, reduction of garbage can be achieved if residents start segregating their waste at home, and municipalities acquire the systems to manage it. But there is a major policy disconnect here, since tonnage-based contracts issued by cities have created a vested interest in transporting waste to landfills, rather than to reduce it through rules that require segregation, composting and recycling. The imagery of the >Swachh Bharat Mission , which currently dwells on citizen behaviour and the visual appeal of clean cities, needs to extend to waste reduction and recycling. Building the necessary infrastructure is easier today, since a variety of financial instruments are available, including Central funds, corporate sponsorship and the Swachh Bharat cess on services that alone will garner an estimated Rs.3,700 crore during 2015-16. Achieving sustainable clean cities will ultimately depend on the attention devoted to human development and environmental governance. Without inclusive city planning, affordable housing, water and sanitation, the trend of urbanisation can only add to the squalor that depressed Gandhiji in Varanasi. This is the bulwark on which cities can achieve cleanliness and good health.