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India - Dirtiest of All !

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54% of India or 638 million people do not have access to toilets & defecate in the open !

This is over 55% of the total for all such people in the world - we certainly hold the dubious distinction of outranking all others by a huge margin :) - In second place is Indonesia, with a paltry 58 million.

The report also states that 18% of urban India indulge in this practice (Mumbai, Kolkata & Chennai might account for a large part of this). The percentage for rural India is as high as 69%.

Figures for some 'top' countries are as follows:

China 50 million Ethiopia 49 million Pakistan 48 million Nigeria 33 million Sudan 17 million Nepal 15 million Brazil 13 million Niger 12 millionRest of the world 215 million

Click here for the report in TOI.


murali772's picture

why not try this?

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As for the urban areas, perhaps this could be a solution

Muralidhar Rao
murali772's picture

I don't think India really cares

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The following is a report by Sean Paul Kelley a travel writer, former radio host, and before that an asset manager for a Wall Street investment bank that is still (barely) alive. He recently left a fantastic job in Singapore working for Solar Winds, a software company based out of Austin to travel around the world for a year (or two). He founded The Agonist, <> in 2002, which is still considered the top international affairs, culture and news destination for progressives. He is also the Global Correspondent for The Young Turks, <> on satellite radio and Air America.

If you are Indian, or of Indian descent, I must preface this post with a clear warning: you are not going to like what I have to say. My criticisms may be very hard to stomach. But consider them as the hard words and loving advice of a good friend. Someone who's being honest with you and wants nothing from you.

These criticisms apply to all of India except Kerala and the places I didn't visit, except that I have a feeling it applies to all of India, except as I mentioned before, Kerala.

Lastly, before anyone accuses me of Western Cultural Imperialism, let me say this: if this is what India and Indians want, then hey, who am I to tell them differently. Take what you like and leave the rest. In the end it doesn't really matter, as I get the sense that Indians, at least many upper class Indians, don't seem to care and the lower classes just don't know any better, what with Indian culture being so intense and pervasive on the sub-continent. But here goes, nonetheless.

India is a mess. It's that simple, but it's also quite complicated. I'll start with what I think are India's four major problems-the four most preventing India from becoming a developing nation-and then move to some of the ancillary ones.

First, pollution. In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don't know how cultural the filth is, but it's really beyond anything I have ever encountered.  At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump.

Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight.

Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one's health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads.

The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum-the capital of Kerala-and Calicut. I don't know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India's productivity, if it already hasn't. The pollution will hobble India's growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small 'c' sense.)

More after the jump..

The second issue, infrastructure, can be divided into four subcategories: roads, rails and ports and the electrical grid. The electrical grid is a joke. Load shedding is all too common, everywhere in India. Wide swaths of the country spend much of the day without the electricity they actually pay for. Without regular electricity, productivity, again, falls.

The ports are a joke. Antiquated, out of date, hardly even appropriate for the mechanized world of container ports, more in line with the days of longshoremen and the like. Roads are an equal disaster. I only saw one elevated highway that would be considered decent in Thailand, much less Western Europe or America. And I covered fully two thirds of the country during my visit.

There are so few dual carriage way roads as to be laughable. There are no traffic laws to speak of, and if there are, they are rarely obeyed, much less enforced. A drive that should take an hour takes three. A drive that should take three takes nine. The buses are at least thirty years old, if not older.

Everyone in India, or who travels in India raves about the railway system. Rubbish. It's awful. Now, when I was there in 2003 and then late 2004 it was decent. But in the last five years the traffic on the rails has grown so quickly that once again, it is threatening productivity. Waiting in line just to ask a question now takes thirty minutes. Routes are routinely sold out three and four days in advance now, leaving travelers stranded with little option except to take the decrepit and dangerous buses.

At least fifty million people use the trains a day in India. 50 million people! Not surprising that waitlists of 500 or more people are common now.

The rails are affordable and comprehensive but they are overcrowded and what with budget airlines popping up in India like Sadhus in an ashram the middle and lowers classes are left to deal with the over utilized rails and quality suffers. No one seems to give a shit.

Seriously, I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US I guess.

The last major problem in India is an old problem and can be divided into two parts that've been two sides of the same coin since government was invented: bureaucracy and corruption.

It take triplicates to register into a hotel. To get a SIM card for one's phone is like wading into a jungle of red-tape and photocopies one is not likely to emerge from in a good mood, much less satisfied with customer service.

Getting train tickets is a terrible ordeal, first you have to find the train number, which takes 30 minutes, then you have to fill in the form, which is far from easy, then you have to wait in line to try and make a reservation, which takes 30 minutes at least and if you made a single mistake on the form back you go to the end of the queue, or what passes for a queue in India.

The government is notoriously uninterested in the problems of the commoners, too busy fleecing the rich, or trying to get rich themselves in some way shape or form. Take the trash for example, civil rubbish collection authorities are too busy taking kickbacks from the wealthy to keep their areas clean that they don't have the time, manpower, money or interest in doing their job.

Rural hospitals are perennially understaffed as doctors pocket the fees the government pays them, never show up at the rural hospitals and practice in the cities instead.

I could go on for quite some time about my perception of India and its problems, but in all seriousness, I don't think anyone in India really cares. And that, to me, is the biggest problem. India is too conservative a society to want to change in any way.

Mumbai, India's financial capital is about as filthy, polluted and poor as the worst city imaginable in Vietnam, or Indonesia-and being more polluted than Medan, in Sumatra is no easy task. The biggest rats I have ever seen were in Medan!

One would expect a certain amount of, yes, I am going to use this word, backwardness, in a country that hasn't produced so many Nobel Laureates, nuclear physicists, imminent economists and entrepreneurs. But India has all these things and what have they brought back to India with them? Nothing.

The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in status. It's a shame. Indians and India have many wonderful things to offer the world, but I'm far from sanguine that India will amount to much in my lifetime.

Now, have at it, call me a cultural imperialist, a spoiled child of the West and all that.  But remember, I've been there. I've done it. And I've seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does.

And the bottom line is, I don't think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.

Last week, I met an NRI friend of mine, who has been living in the US from long. Talking about the advantages of rail travel over air travel, specifically between Bangalore and Chennai, with the Bangalore airport now a safe 2 hours drive away from the city, she refused to even entertain the idea, considering the filth you generally come across in railway stations. I thought she was being unnecessarily fussy. But, after reading this piece, I begin to appreciate her view. Will we ever change?


Muralidhar Rao
Naveen's picture

Some harsh measures necessary, however inconvenient

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I think Sean Paul Kelley has explained India very well without exaggerations.

The evidence is visible all around us, but we keep failing to recognize the symptoms & accept the filth & squalor around us as routine. We keep claiming that we are the world's largest democracy, that our economy is growing at the 2nd fastest rate, & that we respect every individual in our so-called democracy - what a joke this has made of our country!

Nobody seems to want to study other countries or to draw comparisons since everyone is certain & so cock sure that we are doing great that they do not want to know anything more, period. If they care to look for it, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary & about the mess that we are in when compared with almost all other countries, including many in Africa.

Thus, depsite the worst infrastructure, filthy streets, very high levels of corruption in public services (by both, the concerned agencies & almost all of the citizens), the rickety, pathetic life here is being referred to as great!

Take the example of Singapore or Malaysia - these were countries that had been far more backward than us in the nineteen sixties. Today, they have far surpassed us, & are on the way to become what the world refers to as "developed" nations. This development never came easy for them, & the citizens there had paid a heavy price for it - they had to sacrifice their freedom & endure decades of harsh measures, but today, they are winners. Barring the two years of emergency during Indira Gandhi's time, we have never known any harsh measures & simply refer to those years as "very sad" for India.

The fact is - & nobody realizes, nor accepts this, is that we need harsh measures to respect India more, to respect our streets & railway stations more, to respect our country's laws much more than we are doing today.

It seems impossible to turn this dirty country around in any other way - other than a period where people are severely punished for littering, for bribing, for spitting, for defecating in public spaces, for violating laws. Instead, we, the people are forcing our authorities into submission for condoning our crimes such as building violations with the likes of aakrama saakrama.

Are we really deserving of the powers entrusted upon us as citizens ? Our own filthy ways & weaknesses are thrust upon leaders & authorities, who we use as scapegoats & hold responsible for the filth on the streets or for all of the corruption that exists. I think we should hold ourselves responsible for the mess that our country is today.

idontspam's picture

Corruption & Apathy

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I've seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does. And the bottom line is, I don't think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.

Very Very true. I have always maintained so many things we do are worse than sub saharan africa, especially the way we fix public utilities. BBMP must have some of the most incompetent people on its rolls. They dont know how to run a city and they dont want to admit it. Look at all the dust & debris. Look how they repair streets leaving debris around during construction. look how they dig up streets and not asphalt or clean the road with water. Look how they cant have people get dumpsters to keep their construction material. Look how the sweepers just collect garbage around corners and not cart them away. Look how they dont know to mark lanes on roads or make sidewalks fit for walking. Look how generally incompetent they are.

Its ignorance & apathy all around. It requires knowledge of what quality of life exactly means because most city administrators only travel around enough to see a hotel and visit a theme park on official expense. They havent lived in a place with a good quality of life to know what it means. Unless there is a generational shift we are wasting our time with these people. We shoud stop paying taxes run our own streets like independent corporations.

We have become a Jugaad country, and we put it down to culture.

idontspam's picture

I am going to ask my wannabe

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I am going to ask my wannabe corporator to conduct his campaign by walking on the footpath without setting a single foot on the road. Let me see how he goes past the barking domestic dogs, electric poles, live wires, broken tiles, locked private gardens, COnstruction debris, Dumped garbage, untamed household shrubbery scratching his face, abupt end of footpath without zebra crossings road signs for continuing and 1 foot high foothpaths which need a step ladder to climb. And the administrators think people are fools to accept such work as "footpaths" which have been completed.

Bheema.Upadhyaya's picture

All we need is revolution.

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 Words are self explanatory. I do not think any normal human effort/processes will help in straightening India in a quick cycle. Be revolution a non-violent, is my wish, I do not care if it goes other way.

" My mantra to public bodies=> Enable->Educate->Enforce. Where does  DDC  fit?"
srinidhi's picture

coming back to loo..

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 on a lighter note...imagine the need for fresh water(atleast 10 lts/day) if all those folks start flushing!!

..thought we didnt hav enough  to drink!

sorry for the 'dirty' joke!

Naveen's picture

No point blaming "officials"

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IDS - I'm not sure at all that building a good footpath will end problems - Are we as citizens, going to keep it clean ? Will we refrain from encroaching on it or from putting up our own plants ? Will we keep it litter free & refrain from dumping garbage or building materials or for parking, breaking pavement stones in the process ?

I noticed a house on one of the side streets off Lavelle road with permanent fencing on the footpath in front & a security guard, 'reserving' it for parking for their own private use. In another instance, a storm drain was desilted near my house & the very next day, it was full of garbage, probably thrown by shops nearby. It might be worth investing in great footpaths for people that know how to care & look after it - people in this dirtiest country do not know how to respect public spaces, & street sidewalks are the best example !


Bheema Upadhyaya - I agree. Normal "democratic" processes have not worked, & will never work & sanitize people here & such freedom has in fact, left the country very backward & far behind the rest of the world - most are unaware & argue that India is doing great because we are a democracy!  The real problem is that most Indians do not care as long as they have secured their own well being, as stated by Sean Paul Kelley.

It won't be surprising to see African countries surging far ahead of us soon once they resolve their political /governing problems - many of them have huge deposits of minerals & other resources that is waiting to be tapped. It is really shameful to see countries like Ivory coast & Togo (some of the poorest nations in Africa) having much better streets, good road discipline, clean parks & buildings - some areas are bad, no doubt, but their cities are not filthy & dirty everywhere like it is at every nook & corner here.


Srinidhi - if we were a cleaner, more law-abiding people, we might never have had these water shortages since we would have had proper underground drainage for our houses. Thus, the abundant number of lakes & ground water would not have been contaminated & would have been used for storage for use during summers, instead of holding raw sewage. Thus, there would be enough water for toilet flushing for all !

idontspam's picture

Broken window syndrome

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I'm not sure at all that building a good footpath will end problems

First have something that can be called a foot path. Second its called the broken window syndrome

Third I agree with you, proper usage has to be taught but on things that EXIST. My son keeps dragging me onto the footpath because thats what he was taught when his school took his class to the neighbourhood park in another country. He has been taught so much not to step on to the roads unless there is a zebra crossing that I find it hard to take him walking anywhere in bangalore. Unfortunately like everything else he will get used to the wrong way soon. Why? Not because he doesnt know that it is wrong to walk on the street but because he doesnt have a choice.

Naveen's picture

Window seems broken always !

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IDS - Agree that the way forward first is to have good sidewalks before anything else, apart from other good public utilities such as toilets. It is frustrating to see even a few good steps taken ending up with no benefit to most with lack of maintenance & almost total neglect since such utilities almost always end up being misused & turn dirty & finally so filthy that they become unusable by most people.

Progress in human development has always been at a snail's pace in almost everything. I'm convinced that some forceful methods need to be employed to get people to act more responsibily. We have seen so many instances where the very large number of illiterates dominate almost every facet in responses by authorities to public facilities, & these are then ignored as substandard by the literates, who also join the party in littering & other such dirty practices when it involves public utilities, such as toilets.

blrpraj's picture

amazing article

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Sean Paul Kelly's article was amazing and an eye opener to those who anybody who has not gone out of India. I was one such person who had not stepped out of India till a few years back; and when I did, i realized that i was living much of my life in uninhabitable conditions.

The problem though is so complicated that is really mind boggling as to where to start cleaning up the mess and how to go about it. Simply put, public cleanliness is just not a priority in India and people are ok living amongst filth and garbage!!

And, having travelled to OR transited through a few countries in 3 continents i very much concur with the author because what I found in those countries was pretty much standard infrastructure (good fotpaths, good roads, clean litter free public places etc.); on the contrary the standard scenario you find in India is streets overflowing with garbage, anarchy & chaos on the roads etc. But, on a positive note though, emphasis on education in an average Indian family has brought us along this far and brought us to the global map for other positive reasons we can rightfully claim credit for. This definitely shows that we can surmount great difficulties with meagre means available where there is a will in matters which we think is a priority inspite of enormous constraints.

idontspam's picture

While there are citizens who

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While there are citizens who prefer to throw filth on the road side I have realized a great majority of them are doing so because they have no recourse. There are lots of areas where there is no door to door collection. There isnt a common garbage receptacle in these areas where they can throw their trash. So I have noticed people packing off their daily trash with the maid who drops it on the streets on her way to the next house. There should be one every street corner or near CA sites in each area.

Naveen's picture

More Phones than toilets !

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More news about our dirty ways here !

Only 366 million people (31% of the population) in India had access to improved sanitation in 2008, whilst 545 million cellphones are now connected for service in India’s emerging economy.

Excerpt :

Far more Indians have access to cellphones than to toilet and basic sanitation, a new UN report has said. “It is a tragic irony to think that in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones, about half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” said Zafar Adeel, director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

Naveen's picture

Open defecation

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Around 60 crore people defecate in the open," plan panel member Mihir Shah said, admitting to the need for a change in government's approach. The panel is of the view that toilets should be constructed for hamlets too, apart from aiming to build toilets for households. The thinking is also to build bathrooms along with toilets.


The first step should be to enact a law that makes open defecation punishable.

Planning Commision allocating budget for sanitation schemes & such education is fine, but if they chooes to finance building of toilets in every hamlet, it may result in another gigantic scam.

idontspam's picture

The first step should be to

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The first step should be to enact a law that makes open defecation punishable.

The first step is to enforce having toilets mandatory wherever there is habitation. The people who defecate in the open live on the streets or in shanties where bulding a toilet is a luxury, so the question to be asked why allow such housing to be put up? Why arent construction firms being penalized for not providing temporary housing & toilets for their workers? Why arent wards audited for the kind of housing that is coming up without toilets? What is local corporation doing in those wards? Even if you put the guy in jail he has to go every morning. Where will he go?

If at all penalty needs to be levied it should be on the local panchayat/corporation health department for allowing these to happen, then they will ensure usable toilets are built & people are coerced into using it. If you dont penalize authorities they will not enforce housing rules, swindle money or build dirty toilets & people will end up on the street again.

This problem exists in Bangalore as well, mostly construction areas. Lets think outside the toilet here, if a citizen complains of people defecating on the outside, they can complain to a central ombudsman who will hold the local ward health officer responsible for approving a house without a toilet or allowing construction without toilet provision for workers or for not provisioning a clean usable public toilet. Penalty will come from his salary or from the corporation coffers or jail if they cant pay.

Naveen's picture

Erradication difficult

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First of all, the article is more in general about the hundreds of millions that defecate in the open in rural India where due to ancient /medieval practices, toilets were never built as part of the household, even in rich households due to the presence of vast fields nearby, & this fact should have been mentioned as part of the writeup.

In urban areas, this problem is not so acute, except in say Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata & few other urban centers. Even here, people from the slums /shanties (who are mostly poor /unemployed rural migrants) are largely responsible. The slums /shanties are usually unauthorized encroachments that the municipalities have found very difficult to tackle due to many political obstacles & the huge resistance for relocation /rehabilitation.

Consider two urban examples - Mumbai CST station & the KSRTC bus stand at SBC - both have clean toilets, but one finds people (mostly bus & auto/taxi drivers - who again, are rural migrants) urinating at the boundary walls nearby.

Toilets when built, are always clean, but people, as users ruin it, unless there is an attendant capable of maintaining order. If millions of toilets have to be built, then there will have to be millions of capable attendants to oversee the toilets as well. This is similar to traffic monitoring - when a cop is present at signals, some order is maintained, but if he is missing, there are people that will jump signals.

To fix this problem, the onus must be on people as well as municipalities. If only municipalities are told to ensure clean toilets, people will get away by messing up the toilets at will, as has been the norm so far. Thus, the real challenge is to start changing mindsets & the thinking of people. This is going to be very hard, but without the fear of penalties on users, it may well be impossible.

murali772's picture

Re-invent the toilet challenge

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Meanwhile, between Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (GoI), Dept of Biotechnology (GoI), and Bill & Belinda Gates Foundation, they have announced the "Re-invent the toilet challenge", which should hopefully change the sanitation scenario in the country in the years to come. Details may be accessed here.

Muralidhar Rao
blrpraj's picture

more on this topic

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Even though this is an old thread, since it showed up on the praja front page due to some recent activity i read through the old posts. Wanted to add my perspective to this - the urinating/defecating problem can be attributed to lack of proper living accomodation among the very poor migrant laborers probably; but that does not explain the general dirtiness all around. There is a simple explanation - public cleanliness is not a cultural priority; don't agree with that?; just look around...the country's cities reflect that. Sean Paul Kelly's article reflect that truth. comment guidelines

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