It's Not About Size... It's About Sanitation

Rich or poor, we breathe the same air and even if we’re sipping from bottles of Evian in our Maybachs in Mumbai, we’re no better off. In essence we’re leaving cities in India and large swathes of the developing world to a generation that will live shorter, unhealthier and less productive lives for no fault of their own. The real culprits are likely pointing back at us in the mirror. Every plastic wrapper thrown out of a rickshaw, every paan spat out on a wall, every slum dweller than defecated on the sidewalk, add up to an enormous mountain of shit!

Tanzeel Merchant
Published: 10, Oct 2013

Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page. Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity. Based in Toronto, Merchant has proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement in the private, public, and non-profit sector. Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur. He was the founding Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, a multi-disciplinary centre focused on urban issues relevant to city regions globally. Prior to that, he played a key role in working with governments and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the Athabasca Oil Sands region in Alberta, Canada, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserve. Since 2003, he has also worked on the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives in Canada's largest province and one of North America's fastest-growing urban regions. Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests through five cities on three continents. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

In 2012, India was home to six of the 25 largest metropolitan regions in the world. Delhi and Mumbai actually made it to the top 10. Normally this would be worth publicising, except that it isn’t always about size. Not a single Indian city made it into the top 50 of Mercer Consulting’s 2012 global ranking of cities offering the highest quality of life. In fact, Delhi and Mumbai actually made it to Mercer’s list of the 25 dirtiest cities in the world, with the lowest sanitation and health scores. This is the sad reality every urban Indian resident wakes up to each stinking, smoggy morning, and goes back to bed with.

Copyright: All rights reserved by Louhan http://www.flickr.com/photos/johanpics/2958133966/sizes/z/in/gallery-karmadude-72157623844824948/
Copyright: All rights reserved by Louhanhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/johanpics/2958133966/sizes/z/in/gallery-karmadude-72157623844824948/

India’s cities have much to offer—a diversity of opportunities, experiences, people, food... They are fascinating places, but the slow rot makes me wonder whether they’re worth staying for. A recent study that used 20 years of data to compare life expectancy in more and less polluted parts of China highlighted that residents in more polluted cities died approximately six years earlier than those in less polluted ones. On a base of 500 million people, that translates to 2.5 billion lost years. A study of this scale and intent in Indian cities would likely lead to very similar results. Work funded by the Blacksmith Institute and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution have also highlighted the heavy toll that unsanitary conditions and environmental toxins take on the brains and bodies of children. Rich or poor, we breathe the same air and even if we’re sipping from bottles of Evian in our Maybachs in Mumbai, we’re no better off. In essence we’re leaving cities in India and large swathes of the developing world to a generation that will live shorter, unhealthier and less productive lives for no fault of their own.

It's a cultural cop out in South Asia to apportion responsibility for all that goes wrong to some higher power. I doubt one of the many Gods that pepper the collective conscience had anything to do with untreated industrial effluent being dumped in an open sewer, or a very full bag of garbage being tossed out of a tenth storey window. We're quick to point to corrupt, morally bankrupt governments and municipal administrations as the root of our problems, but the real culprits are likely pointing back at us in the mirror. Every plastic wrapper tossed on the street, every paan spat out on a wall, every plastic water bottle used and discarded add up to an enormous mountain of shit!

photo credit: Sharad Haksar http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharadhaksar/3832170847/sizes/z/in/gallery-karmadude-72157623844824948/
photo credit: Sharad Haksar
http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharadhaksar/3832170847/sizes/z/in/gallery-karmadude-72157623844824948/

In the midst of this gloom, there is always a sliver of hope. A small group of motivated Indians decided they wanted change. Under the banner of The Ugly Indian, with the slogan "Kaam chalu mooh bandh. Stop Talking, Start Doing", they are cleaning up their neighbourhood one eyesore at a time. I came across them a few years ago when a friend posted pictures of their work on Facebook. Driven by a few motivated individuals who believe that only "we can save us from ourselves", they turned cleaning up neighbourhoods into a very effective community engagement exercise. Using just a little bit of money to buy paint and potted plants, and armed with brooms, groups of people mobilise to blitz a neighbourhood or intersection and clean it up.

Before photo credit: http://www.theuglyindian.com
Before
photo credit: http://www.theuglyindian.com
After photo credit: http://www.theuglyindian.com
After
photo credit: http://www.theuglyindian.com

Even though they clearly state on their website that they will not "moralize", this is public shaming at its most effective. The group's core base of well-intentioned youngsters, through these acts, support each other in stepping out of their comfort zones, their economic privileges, and class and caste clans to make a difference. Though small, this is significant for a part of the world so concerned about status.

Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." In beautifying their neighbourhoods, in making such a strong public comment on the state of their environments, in establishing this new social order and precedent, they are, in Gandhi's words, being the change that they want to see in the world.

  • Mchand

    The trash filled India is a reality and a national shame. The responsible entities are the top leaders in Delhi, State, local fiefdoms and agencies collecting tax payers money but delivering little or nothing. It seems like the Indians wish to see not what surrounds them but remain more aware of the phony Bollywood make believe world which are often made in foreign countries for capturing clean street scenes and romantic esplanades. The real India as portrayed here is an upside down truth of the unreal commercials 'Incredible India' projected on the unsuspected tourists abroad.

    on Oct 19, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on my writing Mchand. The sentiments you express are shared, I believe, by many others, all over the world. Hopefully the concerns you express will one day be loud enough to precipitate action. Keep reading, keep caring, and we welcome your comments in the future too. - tanzeelio

      on Oct 24, 2013
  • Dhiraj Dandgaval

    Really a thorough study you have done. Today only my local news paper reported that due to the unavailability of an extra or new place and in the absence of mechanism of further processing 600 to 700 tonnes of garbage lying on the roads and each . In such situations, its really hard to survive in this kind of rubbish atmosphere. To clean up the 600 to 700 Tonnes of Garbage from the roads is, i don't think possible for any group of people. Still, there are some NGOs working on this issue.

    on Oct 18, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for your comments Dhiraj. Garbage collection should be the responsibility of municipalities, and they should be held to account. You pay your taxes, and you should demand the service they are collected for. It's commendable that NGOs like the Ugly Indian are trying to help and raise awareness, but they are not a long-term answer. - tanzeelio

      on Oct 24, 2013
  • Sabyasachi Banerjee

    Inspiring work. Needs to spread to other Indian Cities as well

    on Oct 15, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for the comment Sabyasachi. Do get in touch with them via facebook. I think they do have volunteers who would love more support in other Indian cities. - tanzeelio

      on Oct 16, 2013
  • Vivek

    Without taking away from what The Ugly Indian is doing, the reality is that their work is literally band-aiding the problem. It's been about 3 years since they began their "work", and yet it doesn't seem to have spurred the city leaders into even lifting their heads up from searching for graft opportunities instead of doing the jobs they are paid to do. It doesn't seem to have spurred the big business houses into doing even their own share, such as fixing the footpaths in front of their properties. TUI fixed the space on MG Road abutting the Taj Vivanta, a supposedly ultra-luxe hotel with wealthy patrons. The Big Bazaar on Old Madras Road has not even put in a driveway or paved the footpath, which causes a lot of inconvenience for their own customers. The BBMP seems to have slacked off even more, thinking that now the citizens will do their work for them. This year, I have seen even less of fixing potholes, repairing footpaths and clearing stormwater drains than in years past. It's not just the officials who fail, it is also all of us who behave like pigs. And the only way out to get our lazy Indian behinds to do the right thing is to hit the pocketbook: stiff fines for citizens and businesses, and firings for officials. For that we need sensible rules, which are also lacking. We as a nation are sub-par, and enabling slacking on the part of the government is not the way to go.

    on Oct 14, 2013
    • tejaniruddha

      Hey Vivek, just wanted to share a good news with you. It had been almost a year now that Taj Vivanta and Oberoi has completely adopted a stretch of footpath outside their premise on MG road and sincerely maintaining it. All the treebases have been reconstructed and have beautiful bushes growing there, the stretch has pedestrian bins maintained by the hotel themselves and the peeing spaces near the electrical transformers are cleaned, beautified and protected by the security. You must visit there to believe it.

      on Jun 4, 2015
      • Vivek

        I haven't been there in a while, but I will check it out. Thank you. In the meanwhile, Church Street with its "upscale" restaurants apparently hasn't improved much if at all, from what I am told. What Bangalore(and India) needs is a Lee Kuan Yew figure to lead.

        on Jun 4, 2015
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for your feedback Vivek. You raise many interesting points. The group's work is commendable, and every act is still not enough. It's going to take more people like you to care to turn this ship around.

      on Oct 16, 2013
  • shameer km

    the Indian cities have made their names to the category of dirtiest cities of the world,Increasing urban population, no more innovative thinking to curb the health issues, but there will be at least 1-2 mobile phone per person and despite banning the sales of gutka. 30% of the govt hospitals from these cities are not offering acute complex heart care or trauma surgeries. Middle income and those who comes from the back ward states for a job is the real victims of the under poor services.Its about size and nature of humans who lives, we believe, we can.

    on Oct 13, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Shameer. It's true, that most Indians have access to a mobile phone, but don't to clean drinking water. Which is more important one wonders? Hope is an important to make change, which is what I think you've suggested. Thanks - tanzeelio

      on Oct 16, 2013
  • Avinash

    Maybe something like this would be even more effective: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2012/09/embarrassing-pothole-caricatures-of-politicians-spur-action-to-fix-the-streets/

    on Oct 12, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Hi Avinash, thanks for posting the comment. It is a clever idea, and every act of holding our municipal administrators and leaders to account, is a good one. Tanzeel twitter: tanzeelio

      on Oct 13, 2013
  • Vir Dewan

    Mindblowing! Honestly, this group never disclose the names of their team member and yet they work silently, thanks Forbes team to bring this good story..Everything is about attitude in life.

    on Oct 11, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Hi Vir, they do indeed do good work, and achieve a lot. Thank you for the feedback on the story. You're very welcome. - Tanzeel twitter: tanzeelio

      on Oct 13, 2013
Prev
Reinventing Innovation
Next
The Green Stool Innovation