Pollution levels in Delhi have reached epic proportions, lakes in Bangalore are foaming and catching fire, and garbage is piling along our streets in ever-increasing quantities. All this morbid news comes with a silver lining: A marked increase in civil society’s awareness about local issues, especially in urban areas. NGOs, social enterprises and start-ups have begun to deliver local solutions to local problems. The government of India with its Swachh Bharat mission has also joined in, bringing all its firepower. This infectious enthusiasm, however, faces several pitfalls that we must avoid if we are to achieve even moderate success.
The first pitfall is that of scale. Despite having lost some sheen, the idea of one-size-fits-all continues to fester. Not enough attention is paid to the possibility that it may fail if we try to take it out of the environment in which it was born. Also, trained model thinking often ignores corruption and oligopolies that prevent the most optimal solution from being implemented. For example, consider Bangalore and its ever-growing problem of solid waste management. A solution that has been proposed is segregation at source — a model that has worked reasonably well in the West. However, while some people may segregate their waste by choice, a few may only do so when there is punitive action, while others may not do it even if there’s the threat of a hefty fine or a jail term. It’s an open secret that segregation at source is disadvantageous to the garbage mafia in Bangalore (that rakes its dues from the government based on the weight of garbage in trucks) and, therefore, no amount of waste-profiling or optimal disposal route-mapping will complete the loop and result in tangible outcomes. The solution is not to do away with model thinking but instead operate carefully, under the perpetual assumption that scaling will not work unless proven otherwise.
A second and related obstacle is the over-dependence of data-driven decision-making. The walk from raw data to report can create an illusion that all has been accounted for, but the data we get is wrought with inconsistencies and potential errors. More importantly, the back story for every data set collection is washed away when combined with data coming from other reports or for the purpose of brevity. For instance, Karnataka achieved the 100 per cent toilets mark in all its schools last year, a feat that was tempered somewhat by the data that said 5,344 were dysfunctional. At around 5 per cent of the total toilets in the state, the figure doesn’t look too bad on paper. But the cracks are in the meta-data: A toilet is considered dysfunctional only when there’s no water for cleaning. Our organisation works with schools in improving sanitation and local issues across Karnataka and what we have seen in Hubli, for instance, is that toilets in eight out of 11 schools we visited were unusable and this wasn’t just because of a lack of water.
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Many had been bolted to avoid the hassle of cleaning, some appropriated as toilets for teachers and staff, and a few clogged and rendered unusable. Data-based decision-making is here to stay, but real solutions are possible only when data is highly granular. We must operate under the assumption that data-based recommendations are useless unless the underlying data is ground-truthed and verified against the experience of local-level administrators and civil society.
A third drawback is our narrative — a narrative that is devoid of any attempts to woo the youth towards social change. Let’s look at the numbers — 10 million Indians graduate every year in this country and only one million get jobs. The mismatch in career and ambition with interest and passion is largely to blame for this. Students hop onto the engineering or medicine train in millions, unable by circumstance to decide for themselves. This leaves nine million unemployed and disgruntled youth, who have the potential to change society but are not given any impetus. It is not enough to dole out lessons in civic and environmental responsibility and hope for change without providing the necessary platform or opportunity for youth to explore their potential. India’s famed demographic dividend is slipping away between our fingers, even as we gloat about it in the rest of the world and unless we do something about it that is quick and effective on a local scale, we will have to start preparing for a demographic liability.
The last pitfall is that of confusing perception with reality. In the age of social media and instant gratification, it is easy to get frustrated by bureaucracy and government. And it is equally easy to quell that frustration with a few photo-ops, a strongly worded tweet or an emphatic ratification by a television presenter.
I spent eight months collecting garbage in Bangalore, doing the safai karamchari’s job and sharing their space. The journey was deeply humbling, and provided a strong impetus for my life goals. There are thousands who are just as enthusiastic as
I am and waiting to solve problems, but do not have the right tools or environment. The disillusioned millions hold the key to a better India. It is only a matter of time before they burst onto the scene and be the change they wish to see.