Pristine Privilege

Well we all knew someone had to write it—the blog post about how a Penn student describes yet another way in which she’s privileged after witnessing rural life in a developing country.  So to my fellow CASI interns, now you’re off the hook.  The privilege—out of an infinite list—that I’ll cover in this post is that of cleanliness and sanitation.  This is one of the few aspects of life in the Dewas District where SPS does not allocate its resources.  That is, there are no official waste management, sanitation, or drinking water treatment programs within SPS.

I first started thinking about waste management here during our orientation, when we first visited Bagli.  Bagli is the nearest town to SPS.  As we approach Bagli by car, we always pass a sizable trash heap, where there are often stray cows and dogs scavenging and small fires burning the waste (plastic, onion skins, frayed rope, etc.).  In the town, there is a dry streambed that is full of trash.  As the monsoon rains bring the stream back, all of that waste will start to flow.  Just like litter in Philadelphia, it’s upsetting that people throw waste in their own backyards, but even more upsetting to know that in this case, they have no other option.  There is no municipal waste department that collects landfill trash and recyclables.  I get frustrated at home when I can’t find a recycling bin for a plastic container or glass bottle, but here forget recycling and public trash cans; there’s not even an outlet to dispose of your household non-compostable waste.

Cattle scavenging on the Bagli trash heap

Burning trash outside Bagli

Even if there is no landfill or incinerator to send waste to, it would still make a difference if waste were confined to the designate dump sites instead of dispersed throughout towns, forests, rivers, roads, and fields.  A year ago, SPS filmed a documentary during an annual pilgrimage that leaves litter in its wake, in order to raise consciousness about how they dispose of waste.  Each year, pilgrims march for miles carrying water from the Narmada on the road that passes through Neemkheda and Bagli.  To show their support and hospitality, locals feed the pilgrims.  Because there are so many people to feed, plastic cups and plates are used, which the pilgrims then toss onto the ground because there are no waste receptacles.  Without laying the blame on anyone, SPS Community Media simply filmed someone drinking stream water on the lush, green ghat (mountain the road passes through) before the event, then showed pilgrims littering and showed the trash left after the procession had passed.  Simply showing what happens every year and showing this film at village movie screenings got residents to reconsider how they run the event.  Last year, one food provider handed out food in metal dishes.  Others collected recycling and sent it to Indore.

Another aspect of sanitation is access to clean water.  SPS has vastly increased access to water in this region of rural Madhya Pradesh, and strongly encourages communities to take advantage of existing government toilet construction schemes, but there is not much mention of drinking water safety.  In more urbanized areas of the region, there are open sewers, and in farmland and villages there are not often toilets.  Yet people source their drinking water from dams and borewells which are rain (and runoff) fed.  Even if people here only drank groundwater, the water quality might be unsafe, but surface water must surely contain dangerous bacteria and viruses.  How often do people get sick from the water?

We were able to take another trip on Sunday, this time to Maheshwar and Omkareshwar.  Both of these feature temples on the banks of the holy Narmada River.  When we approached the Narmada, which reminds me of the Schuylkill in Philly, I was confused to see people soaping up before they swam.  Men were lounging and leisurely floating while children (mostly boys) took turns running and diving off stone platforms and women chatted while they washed clothes.  I felt stunned and guilty that people were bathing and washing clothes in water I was afraid to touch.  When we saw water jugs at the temple, I was certain they contained that same holy water.  People from the region travel to the Narmada to disperse the ashes of their loved ones. Yet there was trash floating in the river and piles of it on the banks.

Women bathing and washing clothes while children play at Maheshwar

Despite my few colorful, pretty photographs from Omkareshwar, that experience did not leave me feeling purified either.  I was not prepared for the clouds of flies that filled the air for the duration of our ascension to the temple, and let them distract me from taking in the other aspects of my surroundings.

A peek into the temple at Omkareshwar

I am privileged to care when a fly lands on me.  This discomfort I felt constantly fidgeting on our short boat ride over the Narmada to Omkareshwar is because I have the time and lack of other grievances to be bothered by a fly.  I also don’t have to live my entire life in the presence of flies.  The same goes for my phobia of anything too many people have touched, like subway poles, or of the bottom of my shoes (many children in nearby villages don’t even wear shoes).  People in densely populated developing countries have no choice but to share their air, their roads, their water and their germs with many millions of other people.

I complained for the first few days about never feeling clean after bucket showering and immediately breaking out a sweat, when I should have been thankful that I get to bathe whenever I want.  At home in Philadelphia, feeling clean, with clean clothes, clean sheets and clean food, is a non-issue.  Closed sewage systems are taken as a given everywhere in the U.S.  But here in MP, there are still many years to wait before those comforts are available to all.

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About Bevan Pearson

I'm an Earth Science major concentrating in Environmental science in the College Class of 2018. This summer 2016, I'll be a CASI intern with Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Bagli, Madhya Pradesh.