Of all places in the city, Mumbai’s beaches truly embody a public spirit. Unlike the city’s parks and gardens, beaches are open to all, at all times of the day. It is the only place in the city where ones vision can trail all the way to the horizon. It’s where the young play football, families walk with their kids, the aged sit along the edges, couples make out and single souls meditate on the meaning of life. Without its beaches, Mumbai would be a soulless city.
Which is why the horror when this happens:
Every few months the tide brings in garbage and converts the beach into a filth pile. This happens almost overnight after which the garbage rots and breeds mosquitoes till the time the municipal corporation’s garbage collectors slowly begin clean the beach to the best of their capability. Meanwhile, the beach goers mourn the loss of space and turn back to the cramped city. This time, the tidal filth coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) and offered some garbage for thought.
In his inaugural speech, that was symbolically delivered on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, Mr. Modi urged Indians to keep their environments clean, after which he went on to sweep the areas around Valmiki Basti and in ice bucket style nominated 9 candidates to clean their neighborhoods as well. The cleanliness mission works in tandem with the toilet first program launched by the BJP which aims to provide increased access to sanitation services. While there is no question about its nobility of the vision, the garbage on the beach definitely questions the simplicity of it.
The magnitude of the garbage that accumulates on the beach and the suddenness with which it appears, points to a systemic failure in solid waste disposal system in Mumbai. This garbage does not come from uncultured Indians littering the beach as Modi and many TV anchors covering the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan made it out to be. Somewhere along the coast garbage is being dumped into the sea and is being brought in with the tide. Even if the neighborhood in classic Modi style cleans up the garbage and puts it in dumpsters, where will the garbage go? Will it somehow find its way back to the beaches like it did the first time or will it get dumped in a yard? What happens to neighborhoods where garbage is dumped? What happens to the labour working in these dump yards?
This is not the only kind of garbage that makes its way to the beach. A day after festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga puja, when hindus immerse plaster of paris idols of Ganesh and Durga into the sea, they float back to the beaches. The statues are clandestinely cleaned up by authorities and taken to dumping grounds in wee hours of the morning to avoid hurting religious sentiments. Scores of statues painted in toxic colours are immersed into the sea every year causing irreversible damage to the eco system. But there is very little dialogue within the community about these toxic festivals and I doubt that a right wing political party like BJP shall find the political will to critique polluting hindu rituals.
One wonders why the political obsession with myopic “cleanliness” when the need of the hour is to address systemic failures in garbage disposal and environmental sustainability – Although sustainability has been much abused in greenwashing campaigns it still offers a chance to open up the agenda beyond hiding the matter that lies out-of-place! But perhaps the problem with sustainability is that it questions too much – it critiques the means deployed to attain the double-digit growth, it questions the right of developing countries to pollute to get ahead. Hence instead, we are offered a whitewash that shall never clean the dirt that is systemic and oppressive.