Monsoon weekend sunset in Mumbai

Monsoon weekend sunset in Mumbai

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.

The tilting ground plane does not deter the beach cricket club

The tilting ground plane does not deter the beach cricket club

The Hare Rama Hare Krishna club

The Hare Rama Hare Krishna club

Its a dogs life

Stray dogs basking on the beach

Kid rolling sand balls

Kid rolling sand balls


Budding actor photoshoot


Which is why the horror when this happens: 

Garbage brought in by the tide

Garbage brought in by the tide

Filth pile that was once a beach

Filth pile that was a beach a day ago


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.

Modi leading the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan Image: http://www.narendramodi.in

Modi leading the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan
Image: http://www.narendramodi.in

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.

Nivedita Menons offers a critique on this issue in her recent article on Kafila

2 thoughts on “Garbage for Thought

  1. This is really interesting, and very well written. Thanks for posting.

    The systemic problem that you mention probably exists in two spheres – individuals and their lack of commitment to keeping their own environs clean, as well as institutions and the inability of their overseers to think strategically about how their processes affect the environment.

    My guess (hope?) is that the recent movement towards a clean India and all the PR that goes with it will do a lot to address the first – if you can bring about a sense of commitment to a large enough number of individuals, and it doesn’t have to be all of them – things will ultimately swing towards the better. This will of course be a generational change, where upholding the civic sense front and center will become easier because the populace is not spending all of its energy in just surviving on a daily basis.

    The institutional problem will probably be affected by this change as well. I can see some problems that will come in the way of driving as much as change as we’d like, because of the lack of dialogue and a jumble of political machinations. Perhaps the right way to go about this is to publicize and bring up the lack of dialogue in measured tones, rather than the fatalistic rabid NDTV 24 style war zone coverage this sort of thing tends to get. The more this is in the public eye, the more likely are campaigns at awaaz or change.org going to be successful.

    BTW, I liked Nityanand Jayaraman’s take (via Nivedita Menon) on what constitutes the meaning of dirt – I think (he?) raises some valid points.

    But that article totally veered of course for me when I saw his proposed bullet point about “… declare that India will eschew activities that generate intractable wastes – like nuclear power plants – and abandon plans for setting up new plants in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. ..” – that seems like blatant agenda pushing. I think this is also a problem – if some people write about things that really make you go “hmm interesting” – and then immediately follow it up with points that (atleast to me) felt like part of a larger agenda – their credibility is lost.

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