Cleaning House

Summers at home in India pass in a precarious time warp. I can fax, chat on the net or make a cell-phone call abroad but when I walk over to my nephew's house, only a mile and a half away in a rural campus, my journey has a Victorian arduousness to it. I have to pick my way gingerly through the dusty path cutting across the field, alert for dozing vipers, lantana thorns, cantankerous goats tethered to the bushes, and random puddings of animal and human excreta. At first, it is a mystery where these come from because the villages are a good bit away. But distance does not dim the force of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment, which until recent years has been the motto of Indian civic life.

And so houses are walled and gated here without apology. Our wall, solid grey and concrete, was supposed to have been a formidable seven and a half feet, but it sank to six after it was built. Still it's not enough. A neighbor's son shins up a tree on their side, leans over, and plucks the mangos on our side. Every so often, cricket balls, clods of earth, stones, and other less identifiable flying objects land on the lawn that my parents weed and cut every week with missionary zeal. Across from our house on an empty piece of land, someone's garbage shows up with mysterious regularity no matter how often we clear it. Waste water from the gutters spills over onto the streets every time it rains. Little ones and sometimes not so little ones wander off into the fields to relieve themselves with a certain innocent nonchalance. But the houses from which they saunter out, though they encroach on the streets far beyond the prescribed limits, are themselves immaculately clean, the earth in front swept, washed, and decorated with ritual white-powder kolams.

Cultural factors underlie problems exacerbated by over-population and poverty. The cities of an early Indian civilization in the Indus River valley had complex sewer systems and some of the oldest extant toilets that date back 4,500 years. But over time, Hindu religious teachings forbidding defecation near dwelling places as dirty and polluting to one's caste made the cleaning of "night-soil" (the Indian euphemism) the work of "untouchables."

Until Exnora came here, my parents, retired medical professors, were fighting a losing battle with community sanitation, unable to get neighbors to cover open ditches or to dispose of their garbage on their own property. Now, my father tells me, the Exnora man comes by on his cycle every week to collect the garbage sorted out before hand into recyclables and wet waste which they compost to provide cheap, high-quality manure which is used among other things to reforest the denuded pre-Cambrian hills that ring the campus. The municipality has talked of greening for years, but only Exnora, an NGO, had actually taken any steps.

An acronym for Excellent Novel and Radical, Exnora is the brainchild of M. B. Nirmal, a bank official turned civic activist who founded it in 1989 to clean up Chennai, capital of the southern state Tamil Nadu and the fourth largest metropolis in India, which was disintegrating under massive problems of pollution and sanitation.

Almost a third of India lives in a city and in the major cities about half of the population is concentrated in slums. Lack of sanitation accounts for 80 percent of Indian health problems -- from polio, of which half the world's reported cases occur in India, to diarrhea which kills half a million children annually, that is, as many children who have died from sanctions in Iraq in a decade.

In Chennai, a study by Exnora shows that one crucial reason for the unsanitary conditions in the city is that over 267 million liters per day of sewerage is discharged into the city's waterways because the sewage pumping-stations and treatment plants are not functioning properly. According to experts, sewerage-connected toilets remain out of the reach of the majority of Indians primarily because the sewerage system needs not only a sufficient quantity of running water, but also a regular supply of water for waste disposal, the cost of which at the rate of $150 a unit would be $500 billion. Right now, there are no sewerage and sanitation services for more than half the population living in cities. Toilets are not available to about a third of urban residents and proper waste collection services have yet to reach almost three quarters of the population.

This urgent need means that the problem of waste must be central to the issue of sanitation. Exnora's goal of "zero waste" is based on its philosophy of waste as a type of wealth to be managed rather than eliminated. Zero waste programs separate garbage when it is collected into recyclables, hazardous waste, and wet waste -- the largest component. Wet waste is taken to special sites (only 20 by 40 feet per 500 families) where it is compacted and turned in 40 days into dry manure by the introduction of earthworms. Vermiculture is odorless, biofriendly, and inexpensive and it is only one of Exnora's grass roots operations which also include citizen monitoring of polluted waterways, tree planting, and community education.

From a local initiative, the NGO, now a member of the environmental group GAIA, has grown into hundreds of "civic exnoras" affiliated with an "international exnora," and has been cited as one of several hundred best community practices in the world by the UN. It has been imitated in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, and its approach to pollution is in line with the most progressive in the West -- where for some years incinerators, especially medical incinerators, have been regarded as the source of pollutants like cancer generating dioxins and have been closed down, held to higher standards, or in Europe replaced by autoclaves and microwaves.

The global garbage business however has its own form of NIMBY both at home and abroad. In the UK, Communities Against Toxics was outraged when after six years of spreading highly contaminated ash from its incinerators around Newcastle, Byker Combined Heat and Power Plant was only penalized with a small fine.

In New South Wales, Vivendi, a French multinational notorious for its corporate practices, was implicated in creating a stench in Adelaide in the "big pong" of 1997. Defying the so-called rationality of the market, Vivendi-owned companies are responsible for providing filtered water from the very same dams and water tables next to which Viviendi subsidiary Collex dumps waste. Paid by the ton, Collex has little incentive to recycle and thus reduce its output. These instances indicate that although activists often treat the export of waste as a north-south issue, it is more accurately an issue of the powerful and powerless whether at home or abroad.

Still, developing nations do bear the brunt of global NIMBY. Batteries, PVC plastics, genetically modified foods, multilayer packaging, obsolete weapons, and even ships are sent overseas to poor countries to be broken down and recycled in horrendous conditions. Obsolete technology that has been discarded in the West tries surreptitiously to resuscitate itself in a climate that is environmentally less rigorous. In the 1970's trash was dumped in Africa with the help of local middlemen until an international outcry stopped the trade. More recently studies have shown that electronic wastes from phones and computers are being sent to India, Pakistan, and China where they are disposed of in highly dangerous conditions. At least 30,000 tons of scrap from the World Trade Center wreckage has been exported from the United States to Sabari Exim Pvt. Ltd. in India, raising concerns in Greenpeace, India, and other NGOs, but the Basel convention which has banned hazardous exports from the developed nations has so far not been signed by the US.

There is, however, one crucial difference between corporate and peasant NIMBY.

My parents can always retreat behind that gray wall and enjoy sanity and sanitation no matter what happens outside. But there is no private sphere into which a community can retreat once corporations enter the picture. Far from being conservative in culture, multinationals are inherently radical, disrupting, dislocating, and creating new inefficiencies of scale, while, turning semantics on its head, so-called "radical" organizations like Greenpeace and Gaia try to conserve local resources and local networks. This is no free market; the MNC's come armed with the big guns of national and international (IMF and World Bank) subsidies. The NGO's, truly private entrepreneurs who are actually filling consumer needs, operate on a shoe-string.

In Chennai, for instance, the Exnoras have become the latest victim of the MNCs. Again, it is Vivendi and a subsidiary Onyx who are repeating their Australian rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul act, dumping right next to the most important water-table in the city from which they are simultaneously drawing water. Again, paid by the ton, Onyx has no incentive to recycle so that Exnora's carefully built up system of separation-at-the-source as well as its crucial public education effort has been undermined. Onyx in fact has been guilty of disrupting local recycling in Egypt in 2001. When it signed its 7-year contract, Onyx was supposed to be bringing in the latest technology. And those who were happy to see the garbage off their streets but not especially concerned with where it went after that pronounced themselves satisfied. However it was soon quickly apparent to everyone that the whole operation, involving the transport of unsegregated waste in uncovered trucks, was medieval.

But the story gets even worse. Chennai generates 1400 tons of waste per day which, like 80 percent of Indian garbage, is organic, moist, of a low calorific value, and best handled by compacting not burning, as even Onyx has conceded, so high-cost waste-to-energy technologies that involve burning are not only inefficient and costly but extremely hazardous. Incinerators release chlorinated organic compounds and large quantities of carbon dioxide which is one of the major contributors to temperature rises that have plagued South India for the past few years. Acid gases from combustion and elements in the garbage interact with oxygen or hydrogen and lead to acid rain, to metal corrosion, and the erosion of buildings. High-temperature burning of chlorinated substances create potent furans and dioxins that even in low doses produce an enormous variety of adverse effects in humans and animals. An International Symposium on Dioxides in Seoul in 2001 showed the highest levels of dioxin-related substances in the breast milk of women living close to the Perengudi site where Onyx was dumping and studies of nearby families showed a higher incidence of early death, asthma, and skin rashes.

The displacement of the Exnoras by MNC's was one of innumerable cases presented at Hyderabad, India, at the Asian Social Forum in the early part of January. An offshoot of the World Social Forum which also met in January, the ASF puts a human face on the market shibboleths traded at the World Economic Forum, where the economic masters of the universe met.

Strange that it should be the so-called left which is demanding local solutions, decentralization, and downward devolution while the free-traders endorse corporations whose economically nonsensical diktats and sprawling, incoherent operations would have put the Politburo to shame. Vivendi and the other MNCs are not private businesses in any Smithian sense at all. Cartelized and subsidized, they are impervious to the market and feed off the public trough through bids that are not genuinely competitive and contracts skewered by kickbacks, overlaps, PR campaigns, and conflicts of interests. The costs of their operation -- transportation, public health, education, administration, policing -- and the dangerous bio hazards produced by it are all borne by the public, that is, socialized. But the profits are privatized and siphoned from the public domain. The Exnoras are no match for the combined weight of the state and such behemoth cartels. As for the public, which is it? The masses, the middle class, or the elites? The voices in the business press demanding more globalization, the activist green groups demanding less, antiquarians nostalgic for rural India, modernists fast forwarding to a technological nirvana?

The fate of the Exnoras should be a warning to market fundamentalists that those who miss the reality of what is taking place in the Global New World Order by fixating on the classical meaning of labels such as private, free, or market, are liable to become as obsolete as the cumbersome, dangerous technology of the global sewerage system.

L. Rajiva was born in India and holds a Master's degree in International Relations and Political Theory from Johns Hopkins University.

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