The WHO theme “Sanitation Matters”, which links sanitation with public health, has culminated in the “Clean Water & Sanitation” Goal of SDG-2030. Closer home, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has repeatedly exhorted greater public participation for achieving the lofty goal of total sanitation, a call that he reiterated only recently on 2nd of October. Kumbh Mela, to be organized on the banks of the Sangam in Prayagraj in January-February 2019, shall be the largest gathering of mankind ever witnessed on earth. It shall provide both a unique as well as challenging landscape for demonstrating our national commitment for sanitation and public health. The “Swachh Kumbh” agenda, albeit ambitious, is achievable if we citizens are willing to throw our collective weight behind it.
An estimated 120 million people visited the last Kumbh Mela in 2013. To put this figure in perspective, more than 10% of the nation’s population converged on a city whose host population is a mere 1% of the visitors. Numbers are expected to be higher this time around as between the previous and current Mela, communication has become much more affordable and people are savvier in engaging with it. Social media platforms are abuzz with messages inviting visitors to this mega celebration of religion, culture and self-less service. Add to this the active efforts being made by the government at all levels and across departments to invite visitors. “Chalo Kumbh Chale” is reaching out to Indians in every part of the country. Overseas visitors are also welcome; there are plans for officials from 195 embassies in India to visit the Mela in December to witness preparations so they may facilitate their citizens’ travel and stay. For the two month duration of the Mela, 3200 hectare land on which it will be established will mimic a tent city. The enormity of infrastructure that needs to be provided is self-evident. What may not be as obvious is that this infrastructure is almost entirely temporary, and is established in the short duration of 3 months immediately preceding the Mela.
In the context of solid waste management, several hundred tonnes of solid waste or garbage are estimated to be generated every day. On busy days, this figure could reach 500 tonnes, or about 40 truckloads of compacted waste. Breaking from past conventions, this year the Mela administration is approaching this challenge by planning an effective waste collection and transportation system, equipped with modern equipment and technology-enabled comprehensive monitoring. The system was piloted successfully last year during Magh Mela, a mini-Kumbh Mela of sorts at the same venue, and comes close to the solid waste management model adopted world-wide in developed nations. The system is designed to ensure that once waste reaches the dustbin, all subsequent transfers and transportation is done without contact with human hands or ground. Anyone who has worked in this sector will appreciate that this is a considerable paradigm shift from the existing practice of manual handling of waste by sanitation workers, or spilling of waste on the ground before transferring it to a bigger vehicle. Both processes are avoidable, not only because of the health hazard they create for sanitation workers, but also because of the indignity and drudgery they engender. Also, waste spilled on the ground never ever gets collected completely, leaving it to fester, decompose, leach and pollute.
Almost 20,000 dustbins shall be deployed in the Mela area, along roads and ghats, inside vending areas and camps, with the objective that visitors need not walk more than 25 meters to reach a dustbin. This choice architecture is deliberate, and designed to ‘nudge’ visitors to throw garbage only in dustbins. 120 tipper vehicles shall be touring the Mela area on designated routes collecting contents of the dustbins and transferring them to compactors stationed within the Mela. Each of the 40 compactors shall be able to compact and transport 15 tonnes of waste in one sortie, making it an efficient and cost effective transportation system, with minimum carbon and physical footprint per tonne of waste transported. There is no scope of spillage of waste from the compactor, making it is also the most aesthetic way to transport garbage.
However, the visitor to the Mela is the most important link in system, who by using these facilities will justify and validate the system. A challenge lies before the Mela Administration to ensure buy-in for the system by visitors. Likewise, it lies before individual citizens and citizen groups to demonstrate willingness to adopt better sanitation practices. Can litter disposal be done mindfully? Can we find it in ourselves to make the effort to find one of those 20,000 dustbins and drop that banana peel only inside it? Can we also encourage co-visitors to follow this practice, by choice? Come, let us take the pledge for a Swachh Kumbh, to do our bit to keep the Mela clean. Come let us walk these holy paths, and leave our mark on these sands of time.