Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A nation with too few toilets

The stench of a report released last week by the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in New York City brought the world’s attention to the fact that India’s vast open spaces are a latrine for half the population. To drive home the point Zafar Adeel, director of the UN think-tank, said that while about 45 per cent of the 1.2 billion population has access to mobile phones only about 31 per cent has access to improved sanitation. Not so long ago a WHO/UNICEF report stated that for every 10 people in the world defecating in the open, close to six were in India.

Two aspects need to be highlighted. The first is suggested by Corinne Shuster-Wallace, co-author of the report. “Even the word ‘sanitation’ is sanitised, perpetuating ancient taboos about discussing human waste…” How many people would discuss sanitation over the morning coffee? The second is the failure to create the awareness needed to drive home the importance of sanitation. Nor has the government focused sufficiently on bringing down the cost of a usable toilet and its long-term functioning. At the micro-level city corporations and panchayat bodies have given no thought to building public toilets. The few that are found are terribly maintained. How many of the bus/railway stations in our cities/towns have toilets — leave aside their condition? The government could take a leaf from private organisations that build and operate toilets in many of our cities and towns.

According to the Millennium Declaration adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2000 member countries, India included, are required to achieve eight development goals by 2015. If the IWEH report is anything to go by, India would miss five of the eight goals by miles, thanks to a deplorable sanitation scene.

If people are to view sanitation as a serious issue governments too must look at it gravely. The same focus and publicity that is given to the Nuclear Summit, to cite an example, should be given to a summit on sanitation where mayors and civic councillors would discuss how to provide citizens with what is a basic dignity, a clean, usable toilet. It is true that if nuclear knowhow falls into the wrong hands the world will be at risk, but it is also certain that diseases caused by lack of sanitation are killing millions, especially children, around the world every year, and the number is rising.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ahmedabad jottings

Ahmedabad jottings

See the stars in daytime

They say the signs seen at the beginning of a journey are premonitions of what is to come. Since I was flying with the ‘best’ airline in the country from Chennai to Ahmedabad I did not think the flight being delayed was a bad omen. Almost all flights are late. The cabin crew at the entrance to the plane had a smile that was welcoming. I placed my cabin baggage and took my seat. If I thought travelling in the city bus was bad, this was worse. My knees hit the front seat and I had to sit diagonally to fit in. I took a deep breath and thought about him. I could understand what he meant by ‘cattle class’ and could forgive Shashi Tharoor for his candidness. After the regular safety drill the cabin crew dished out food that resembled two rock formations surrounded by pebbles. ‘Sir, it’s channa and aloo’. No sooner did I have it than the rumbling started. I dashed to the toilet in the front. There I remembered the tag line of the airline, which promises a few stars in their service. I can vouch for it — I did see stars.

Three colours, all green

Ahmedabad is a city of contrasts. If some roads are jam-packed with vehicles others are deserted. If there are ancient cars plying the road leaving behind a back cloud, there are also the latest super-luxury cars in abundance. It is among the most polluted cities in the country but has an efficient CNG system for its public transport. The autorickshaws ply by the meter, which is a welcome change. But traffic is chaotic, to say the least. Except for main signals and intersections where there is a cop, at other places irrespective of the signal — red, orange or green — it is green for everyone. Sudden breaks, a touch-and-go or a gaali is taken with the ride.

Planned transport

Though Ahmedabad is Gujarat’s main metro, Gandhinagar is the capital. It houses the administrative wing along with the sprawling CM’s residence opposite the Akshardham temple. Gandhinagar is a planned city though my cab driver was of the view that it was deserted: “Ek bhi (Shopping) Mall nahi” However what impressed me the most was the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) developed by Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The BRTS covers approximately 17 km from the RTO to Kankaria Lake with most of the lane exclusively meant for BRTS buses. This means the whole distance can be covered, at certain times of the day, within 20 minutes. If reports are to be believed the BRTS serves 30,000 people a day and is set to expand. This is exactly what a city that looks into the future wants. There is no alternative to an efficient public transport system. Another attraction, at the end of the BRTS, is the Kankaria Lake and park that surrounds it. The Atal Express, a toy train that encircles the lake, is a fun ride.

Apna style story

In and around Ahmedabad there are a lot of temples to visit and some of them, I must confess, are worth seeing. Though I cannot recollect most of their names, a common feature in most places was the tight security and though it was a weekday there was no respite for the number of visitors. Mobile phones and camera are a strict ‘no-no’ and in some places footwear along with baggage is restricted beyond a point. Another common sight is the presence of guides who promise to narrate the ‘stories’ behind the temple and the other artefacts. In one such temple a few boys approached me and offered to guide me. “Sir, story boldunga. Hill ka story” Another boy said: “Sir, poori story. Style mein boldunga.” “Sir, mandir ka story, apna story, poori story…” I paid three boys and listened to them. By the end I had got my money’s worth and stories enough for a few more temples.

Welcome mischief

Gujarat is a dry state. It is the land where Mahatma Gandhi was born and thus, I believe, there shall be no high spirits. The day I landed the local papers had carried a news item about a person who was arrested after being found in an inebriated state. But my local sources told me that getting the spirits was as easy as in any other state. The highway from Ahmedabad to Rajasthan is picturesque and one cannot but notice the difference when entering the neighbouring state. There is a beaming sign: ‘Welcome to Rajasthan’. Below it two people laughing and the words ‘White Mischief’. Soon shops selling liquor appeared. The desert state is far from dry.

Modi, the superstar

This is how a typical hoarding, hosted by a political party for an inauspicious function would look like in most states: The largest picture would be that of the party president. Next, in almost equal importance, would be the picture of the president’s son who is the heir to the throne. This would be followed by the state chief, local area secretary and other small fry. The party emblem would be used either prominently beside the chief or even in a decorative pattern along the border. In Ahmedabad and the surrounding areas too there were hoardings raised by the state government but they just featured chief minister Narendra Modi and the scheme advertised. The BJP emblem, the lotus, was missing not to mention pictures of party president Nitin Gadkari or senior leaders like Advani. It simply meant that in Gujarat Modi is the superstar.