Talking rubbish

April 14, 2017 00:00 AM Gunjan Upadhyay


There is no better way of predicting the onset of summer than the stench that – like clockwork – starts to emanate from the Bagmati river around this time of the year. 

In Kathmandu, they say it’s not really summer until you can smell that distinctive, pungent odor from the Bagmati River. Well, no one actually says that but you get the drift.

There is no better way of predicting the onset of summer than the stench that – like clockwork – starts to emanate from the Bagmati river around this time of the year. This smell becomes a part of our summer routine and follows us on our commute and also to our houses if we happen to live even remotely close to the river and if the wind gods decide that we haven’t had enough of it. 

This familiar stench is the result of indiscriminate dumping of solid waste that takes place near the riverside or, in the case of liquid, sewage directly into the river. A lot of us who have at some point volunteered on our Saturdays with the ‘Clean Bagmati Campaign’ would have seen first-hand the quantity of garbage that is fished out from the Bagmati during these cleanup operations. As of the start of 2017, volunteers had extracted close to 15 metric tons of garbage from our ‘holy’ river. Even though this initiative completed its 200 weeks recently, such is the scale of the problem that it still feels like we are fighting a losing battle in which, barring a few areas, we seem to have made little headway in keeping our riverside clean. On the contrary, we seem to be fishing out waste in greater quantities than ever.  

Our disposable incomes and improved living standards have led to changing consumption patterns which means that we now generate a lot of inorganic waste most of which, due to lack of a proper solid waste management system, invariably ends up in the Bagmati.

For a capital city with ever increasing population density, we are still playing catch up even with respect to basic infrastructure required for urban ‘livability’ – the roads are being widened, pipe lines are being laid for running water, continuous electricity is only now being ensured, and sewage lines are being laid along the river for refuse that would otherwise be dumped directly into the river.

Nevertheless, there are initiatives being taken in the field of solid waste management like the Kathmandu Valley Integrated Solid Waste Management Project which is a deal between the Investment Board of Nepal (IBN) and Nepwaste, a private company that will see the firm contracted to manage the valley’s solid waste. The project has rather fittingly envisioned an awareness campaign for educating households on waste segregation and disposal and the provision of separate trash bins to households looks promising in terms of ensuring people participation and compliance. 

The education and awareness bit still remains the single biggest challenge for any waste management initiative to succeed because a large part of the populace still does not even practice segregation of the waste at source never mind reducing, reusing, and recycling.

Even though we have apparently banned plastics, a lot of the products we buy come in plastic from staples like milk to vegetables and it is very often these same plastic bags that are we – rather ironically –reuse to dump both our organic and inorganic waste. 

We also have an attitude of ‘as long as it’s outside our homes’ it’s the city’s problem and you will often see this attitude when people are cleaning their houses. People are not really bothered dumping waste out on the street as long as it is outside their property.

With the exception of newspapers and glass bottles that are picked up by ‘collectors’, everything goes into one big giant pile (plastic in most cases) that is then dumped out on the street or the nearest place. 

This causes rubbish to pile up in the most unusual places. There’s this scene in the film PK where Aamir Khan rubs powdered ‘tika’ and sprinkles the contents of a ‘paan’ on some random stone and before long people are worshipping it. It’s the same principle with our garbage – dump a plastic full or two on a random street and before you know it that particular place is half way to a landfill already.

On the occasion of the 200th week of the Clean Bagmati Campaign the government decided to invoke the ‘voluntary spirit’ of the initiative and announced its National Sanitation Declaration – our own Swaccha Nepal Abhiyan – that would be effective from the New Year 2074. (It’s always the New Year or Dashain with us folks and, if I remember correctly, the ban on plastic bags also started around this time of the year).  

Like the plastic ban there are various aspects to it that either may not or cannot be enforced like the requirement that organizations, institutions, and agencies throughout the country must clean their office premises on the first week of every month from 2 to 3 pm and all schools must clean their nearest public places on the second and fourth Friday of every month from 2 to 3 pm again. Let’s see if it takes off for a start and then if it makes any difference at all to our growing waste disposal problems. Until then, we might just have to learn to tolerate our ubiquitous ‘summer smell’. 

The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at gunjan.u@gmail.com






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