Cleaning Up Mumbai (Bombay)

In 1534, the fishing villages that made up today's Mumbai were given to Portugal, who in turn packaged them up 127 years later and gave them to the British as part of their dowry for English Charles II marrying their Catherine of Braganza. And the British in turn leased them seven years later to the East India Company for a whopping UK 10 pounds in gold. Since then, like the joke gift at an office Christmas party, Bombay apparently has never been cleaned. That is until we arrived on the scene 329 years later (don't bother doing the arithmetic, that's 1996). And that's a long time to gather a lot of garbage in India's largest city – a place that collects over 5,500 metric tonnes of garbage by 27,000 laborers each day.

Just before we arrived the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) began a campaign to clean up their prized city. All of the rock walls between the airport and downtown were hand painted, "Keep Mumbai Green." These hand lettered signs were hand painted in large green drippy letters.

In true Indian fashion the campaign surfaced with a press conference promising goals and change, which the newspapers of course reported verbatim. Then a new "warning" was posted: "All the members of public (sic) are warned that throwing garbage, silt, refuse, debris, other solid waste on public roads, footpaths, public places and throwing such things from houses or balconies are cognisable (sic) offenses...."

The BMC was proud to point out that there were 6,500 community bins in a city of 15 million that is over 20 miles long. Based on our scientific studies, we believe all of these are located on one city block in a part of town we didn't visit.

One of the commissioners, however, it was reported by "The Times of India," "penalized every small nuisance and banned the environmental devil called plastic bags...." Good thing too. Everywhere you go in India the environmental devils are holding black sabbath. On our camel ride across the Thar Desert, as we approached Jailsalmer we came to a disgusting scene. Piled high and dried out were the swollen carcasses of dozens of sacred cows, the misfortunate who had eaten the "environmental devils" and died tied in knots.

Mumbai is an amazing city filled with a remarkable spectrum of the human rainbow. Dozens of religions, dozens of types of people, dozens of historical roots, and at least 15 million stories to paraphrase the old Dragnet series. But from my journal comes this:

"December 26: At several places were large splotches of garbage fragments that looked as if they'd been dropped from a plane, roughly centered around open concrete garbage circles. Scattered around this circle is the living circle, a pecking order of creatures struggling to survive on the offal. Cats circle weary eyed, pawing the ripe piles; crows sit patiently on the highest nearby object waiting their turn and horsely cawing their story. Dogs, thin and mean with the bloodshot eyes of the cur stand on their rear legs peering into the pit, snatching what remnants they can. And highest in this pyramid of feeding, the class of people once known as "untouchables," now euphamistically called "the children of god." Barefoot, dark skinned, eyes that show a lifetime of psychic beating, karmic beating, and a whiff, only a faint whiff of hope that must be deferred for several more lifetimes. And they root one and all, desperately searching for what little remains. The garbage here is endlessly filtered until it's the final turn of the bacteria to feast on what little may remain."

I don't mean to make light of India's or Mumbai's efforts to clean up its act. They need to, if not for themselves then for the rest of humanity. But to do this takes more effort than a press conference, wall paintings and newspapers reporting before the fact. It takes much more than tossing "environmental devils" since one of the worst environmental sins is air unfit to breath and water that is poison.

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