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New Delhi can't keep a lid on trash problems

By Associated Press
Published October 9, 2003

NEW DELHI - The park had been scrubbed to near-spotlessness by the time the politicians arrived, and the nearby alleys cleared of garbage. Even the suddenly well-swept dirt wasn't, well, very dirty.

At least for one day.

In a city that often seems to be drowning in trash, an obscure park was the focus of New Delhi's "Clean City" campaign, a 10-day festival of parades, posters and pledges of cleanliness. For that day, this little corner of New Delhi was immaculate - tidied specially for the politicians' visit. The rest of the city? For the most part, "clean" was not the word that came to mind.

Every day, this city of 13-million people produces from 7,000 to 12,000 tons of trash. At best, perhaps 6,000 tons of that is disposed of properly. The rest has to go somewhere - and alleyways, streets, parks and even ancient monuments are common dumping grounds.

It's not just trash. Human waste is a big problem in a city where millions of people have no access to toilets. In the poorest slums, streets serve as open-air toilets, and even in the nicest neighborhoods some street corners, long used as public urinals, can choke passers-by.

Every day, more than 1,000 more people move to the city, many fleeing poverty-ravaged villages. And every weekday sees a million or more people come in for work from surrounding towns.

The result is a city where normally genteel people find themselves turning to four-letter descriptives.

"We're drowning in (feces)," said Sunita Narain, who heads the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, India's most prominent environmental organization. "Delhi is becoming a modern city, and with a modern city goes a lot of garbage and waste."

But perhaps the most astonishing thing about New Delhi's dirtiness is that it's less than it was. Street cleaners wielding straw brooms are a more familiar sight today than a few years back, and special magistrates now patrol the streets, handing out fines for public urination and littering. There are even a few more toilets.

Most important, government legislation has forced buses and taxis to convert to compressed natural gas - a change that dramatically lessened the cloud of smog that once enveloped this traffic-clogged city.

Much of the credit, her backers say, goes to Sheila Dikshit, who as New Delhi's chief minister is the city's top official and the equivalent of its mayor.

Her latest campaign, the Clean City program, which ended Oct. 2, wasn't planned to leave the streets spotless, she said. But with hundreds of children marching through neighborhoods carrying posters and chanting slogans, maybe it will change a few attitudes.

"I'm not expecting a miracle, but I'm certainly expecting to get people's attention," she said in an interview.

Dikshit, who has served as chief minister for five years, arrived at the park in the Sarita Vihar neighborhood to lead the schoolchildren in the campaign's six pledges, including, "I won't throw garbage in the street" and "I will not urinate in the street, in a park, or in the open."

Such public displays set off alarm bells with her critics. At best, they say, it's a quixotic, simplistic campaign against a desperately complicated problem. At worst, it's a cynical political display ahead of November elections.

The campaign "only indicates that the Delhi government has taken into cognizance the inefficiency and failure" of the city bureaucracy to keep New Delhi clean, Vijender Kumar, an opposition politician, said recently.

Presumably, politics does play a part in the campaign. But in a culture where garbage cleanup has long been tangled in notions about class and caste - only very low-caste Indians have traditionally collected waste - the idea that everyone has a responsibility for the city's cleanliness is a novel idea.

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