Uttarakhand's Kumaon hills are setting new standards in dirt and poor solid waste management, says Anjuli Bhargava.
A few weeks ago, Madhya Pradesh’s Indore won the award for the cleanest city in India yet again.
But even as we are awarding and recognising the cleanest, whoever is in charge of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) needs to institute a parallel award for the dirtiest towns and cities.
I am recently back from a week in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon hills and while I know many cities and towns in the plains of this state are rather dirty, the hills left me astounded.
Haldwani, Almora, Kasar Devi, Bageshwar, town after town passes and it’s hard to ignore the unchecked and growing mountains of garbage all over.
The heaps are mostly outside the towns on the bypasses, and line the highway, which appears at present to be going through a crisis of its own.
But it is the town of Almora and Kasar Devi (known for a famous temple) that I happened to pass four times and therefore ended up taking it in more keenly.
So let me describe it a bit.
If you enter Almora from the regular road that leads into the main town, you cannot help but notice these large green dustbins every few meters around which heaps of filth is strewn.
Pigs lounge in the squalor and stray dogs and cattle nose around.
Strangely, shop owners in the vicinity and locals walking seem totally immune despite the putrid smell.
No one even looks at the heaps that had me riveted.
I don’t envy anyone who has to deal with this mess or actually clean it up - it’s hard to even walk past with your nose covered, so disgusting is the mess.
As you head out of Almora on the road to Kasar Devi, things take a turn for the worse.
The hillsides turn into large dustbins and you see peels, plastic, sanitary pads hanging precariously down the hill, caked with dirt.
This despite the fact that these hills have no factories or local industry to speak of.
On my second day, I decided to find out why things are the way they are.
I invited myself for lunch to the house of Asha D’Souza, one of the most informed people I have met in recent times on solid waste management.
D’Souza has recently taken matters in her own hands and set up the Green Hills, a trust dedicated to cleaning up the mess.
She spent two hours explaining why things were in the state I saw them and how despite the work done by the trust, things had reached the pathetic state we are currently witnessing.
Based on what I learnt from many locals and D’Souza and her team, I have a few suggestions for whoever is willing to listen.
One, Mr Modi or his deputy who heads the SWA needs to line up the heads of the nagar nigams and municipal bodies in the area and give them a tight rap on the knuckles, in case a spanking is untenable.
The authorities claim that they have neither the funds nor the manpower to manage but offer no explanation on where the funds vanish or what the hundreds of highly paid safai karamcharis actually do.
If there is one agency that is spectacularly failing to do its job, it is the nagar nigam or the nagar palika in each of these districts.
At the rate things are going, these hills will soon kill their golden goose: tourism.
Who will travel kilometers to visit heaps of filth and dirt?
At a macro level, someone needs to question the state government here.
Governance in general is at an all-time low in the state but as far as solid waste management goes, there is a black hole.
It seems like they have forgotten. Someone needs to find out why the SBA has bypassed Uttarakhand altogether. Who is in charge? Find the culprits, pin the blame and reward them for their indolence and sheer callousness.
Two, this or whichever government is in power next, needs to urgently expand the scope of the SBA.
Yes, open defecation needs to be checked but so does the growing garbage menace.
The dangers of allowing these dumps to proliferate are only too well known.
The SBA is one of the least controversial initiatives by this government and one that seems to have seeped into the country’s consciousness. Expand it.
Last, in case anyone in the state administration or the SBA cares or thinks I am overstating the case, I’d be happy to chalk out an itinerary for anyone keen to get a full appreciation of the extent of the problem.
Seeing is actually believing.
Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters