India is the epicenter of the global sanitation crisis with 638 million people lacking access to toilets, leaving them little choice but to practice public defecation. According to India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, roughly 100,000 tons of human excrement is left each day in fields, roadsides, and along the banks of India’s many mighty rivers. As a result, open-air sewage is the most commonly used waste treatment system in both rural and urban areas. Such systems are not conducive to proper treatment; approximately 37% of India’s sewage goes untreated. The combination of untreated sewage lines connected to bodies of water and public defecation has resulted in 75% of the nation’s available surface waters being contaminated by human, agricultural, or industrial waste.

The Indian state has undergone a period of drastic change over the last century. The consequences of rapid political and economic liberalization and globalization have forced the world’s largest democracy to confront a myriad of issues of even greater magnitude. Modern-day India is coming to terms with its postcolonial legacy, ever-widening income gaps, and pollution of unimaginable proportions.

“India is being forced to look hard at its squalor”, writes Aatish Taseer, Indian novelist and author of “The Way Things Were”. The beauty of South Asia has been hidden by its social and environmental burdens. India’s current problems are engrained in the fabric of the nation and must be analyzed diachronically. As a result, The Journal is presenting a series of articles identifying and inquiring about the root of India’s current sanitation crisis.

Upon ending its Raj and leaving India after the Partition of 1947, the British left an astonishingly sophisticated political and economic infrastructure in place: a functioning state apparatus in New Delhi, a large military, strong civil society, and a myriad of other institutions that many would associate with modernity and post-industrial development. French political scientist Christope Jaffrelot asserted that India was given a proverbial “apprenticeship with democracy” before gaining independence, building a foundation for a powerful and highly advanced South Asian state.[1] Despite such seemingly auspicious circumstances, Britain’s postcolonial legacy did not adequately equip the Indian state with the tools required to mitigate many of the socioeconomic issues that the young nation would face over the course of the next century.

India’s economy appeared anemic in the decades that directly followed partition, plagued by the massive bureaucracy that is an unfortunate yet immutable byproduct of being the world’s largest democracy. This was further exacerbated by the plethora of parastatals (state-serving economic institutions) and state-run industries (airlines, railroads, telecommunications, etc.) that served as the driving force behind the country’s growth, creating jobs and providing services at a reasonable cost.[2]  These state-owned entities developed as a result of India’s five-year development plan, borrowed from India’s then closest ally, The Soviet Union. It is often overlooked that India was incubated in a region and time when communist regimes reigned supreme, however, this is another political-economic legacy of India that must be taken into account.

Subsequent years saw a political regime that was more concerned with maintaining power than managing the economy or resolving the litany of social problems that had begun to reach epidemic proportions by the early 1990s. At this time, India was experiencing a period of debilitating inflation, record high unemployment, and unthinkable poverty, compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of India’s largest trading partners.[3] Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh began to take measures to liberalize the economy: lowering tariffs, privatizing industries, and incentivizing multinational corporations to invest in India. While power blinded previous administrations from addressing the crime, poverty, and public health crises that India faced, the pursuit of prosperity arguably prevented Rao’s administration from taking action.

 The consequences of the liberalized economy followed what other industrializing nations had undergone in the past: exponential population growth, rapid development of urban centers, and alarmingly high-income inequality. While this is all fairly typical of an emerging nation, never had such changes been experienced on such a large scale. India’s population has nearly tripled since 1960 and 85% of said growth has occurred in the last 50 years.[4] This population has not only grown but also become increasingly concentrated around India’s metropolitan areas with Mumbai’s population at 12.5 million and New Delhi’s at approximately 16.3 million; neither city shows any signs of slowing their population growth.[5]

 Despite the fact that both cities have some of the highest GDP per capita incomes in South Asia, the degree of destitution in these cities is devastating. The World Bank estimates that 54% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, 25-30% live in chawls or on footpaths, and only 10-15% live in apartments or flats.[6] This is demonstrative of the notion that the city does not have a sufficient infrastructure to accommodate its population. Unfortunately, India’s inability to cope with and provide suitable living conditions for the nation’s poor is a problem that spans far beyond the city limits of Mumbai. The implications of this can be seen in the current sanitation crisis in India and its adverse effects on public health. One of the most troublesome problems urban centers like Mumbai face is that of public defecation and its effects on the water supply and its safety.


[1] Jaffrelot, Christophe. "The Indian-Pakistani Divide." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 20 Feb. 2011. Web. 31 May 2015.

[2] GOSAI, USHYANT. "History of Economic Growth in India." International Policy Digest. N.p., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 May 2015.

[3] GOSAI, USHYANT. "History of Economic Growth in India." International Policy Digest. N.p., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 May 2015.

[4] Srinivasan, K. "Population and Development in India Since Independence."The Journal of Family Welfare (2004): n. pag. Web. May 2015.

[5] Srinivasan, K. "Population and Development in India Since Independence."The Journal of Family Welfare (2004): n. pag. Web. May 2015.

[6] Gale, Jason. "India Failing to Control Open Defecation Blunts Nation's Growth." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, Mar. 2009. Web. 17 May 2015.

 

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