First there was the swachchata concept which put pressure on the poor to build cement-walled toilets. Thousands of poor families living on city streets and slums, and in ramshackle village huts, actually smiled at the irony of this. No roof over the head, no land to call one’s own, and we have to build a toilet with walls, plumbing and drainage!
Following this has come the cashless concept which is putting pressure on the poor to perform electronic transfer of funds. And the poor are shaking their heads with despair because ‘cashless’ just about sums up their state of being. With daily-wage dependence and hand-to-mouth existence, they barely have money to meet their needs, let alone save and spend through digital transfers.
Both these concepts offer the image of a superior class, i.e., the urban elite, trying to educate the backward, rural Indians. So-called public-service advertisements on television have been belittling the villager and stereotyping him or her as stupid and unhygienic – the urban character in the film ‘educating’ the rural folk to stop open defecation and construct a toilet. Now, new advertisements are in the making, showing the backward ways of cash transactions, and how to ‘progress’ to digital payments – this message, by the way, is made for the autowala and the sabziwala, not for our elite who anyway manage their surreptitious cash transactions very nicely, whether in business, real estate or politics.
Some among the urban elite, including TV anchors, in a show of pity for the poor, are speaking up in a condescending way, saying how can these rural chaps reform so fast, how can they have a back account or smart phone, etc., for digital transactions, so let us not force them. But few are actually challenging the wisdom behind these two concepts; most of the urban elite accepts that these two are desirable and inevitable things, especially the toilet model.
I would like to challenge that in this blog, and also to explore the link between the flaws in the two concepts, which together we may term as Digital Shit. It is my position that in reality, both these practices, the urban toilet disposal system, and the urban digital money system, spell tremendous ruin for environment and economy.
A city, by its very characteristic, is a parasite. It produces little or nothing (useful), preys on the resources of its neighbouring regions (water, sand & soil, labour, savings), consumes voraciously, and generates a massive amount of garbage and, yes, shit, every day. What happens to all the shit? Well, 80 per cent of our sewage in towns and cities goes directly into lakes, ponds and rivers (in Delhi, half of it even today drains its way to the banks of river Yamuna). The rest 20 per cent of urban shit goes to sewage ‘treatment’ plants where only half is ‘treated’ and the rest unsafely disposed – again where else but the local drains which lead to ponds and swamps. This is a most unhygienic and unsustainable system.
And what about garbage? Millions of tonnes of solid waste – 10 per cent plastic (by weight, which is huge by volume), 15 per cent toxic and hazardous, 25 per cent electronic waste – are generated every day by urban centres in India, more than 80 per cent of which is dumped in a corner of the city or outside the town in the neighbouring gram panchayat, creating massive, stinking, disease-filled landfills. Such a dirty way of living. And by the way, recycling is only a word, it is a mythical word fed to us through books and media, but in reality, less than 1 per cent of the inorganic garbage from Indian towns and cities is actually recycled, most of our petroleum-based plastic waste is not recyclable at all. And most of the useful organic waste is burnt, instead of it being safely returned to the soil.
But no one in the city, especially the elite, have any knowledge of any of this. A peculiar form of modern education has insulated us from everyday reality; we don’t know where our food comes from, where our clothes come from, and we don’t know where our shit and garbage go. Even as we drive around in our cars and SUVs and fly merrily in aircraft, we seem not to know how the air gets polluted. Education has only fed us the assumption that the city and its ways are superior, we have not verified it. I reckon even Narendra Modi and his cabinet ministers do not know where their shit goes. Otherwise, if they did, why would want the rest of the country to copy this dirty and diseased model?
Contrast this with what happens in the village. In Sawantwadi tehsil in southern Maharashtra where I live, most villagers prefer the open for their daily ablutions. A majority have some type of toilet built in their homestead, usually a little distant from the house because traditionally, the toilet is not part of the home. This has been done on government persuasion. But yet, most have preferred their old routine of open defecation. But this is not unhygienic at all – it is actually the best way to get the shit back into the ecosystem. Go to an isolated spot in the forest, dig out a little soil, perform the act, and cover it with soil again. The shit becomes mud in 24 to 48 hours, depending on the type of soil and weather conditions. And this mud is rich in natural fertilizers, and it is available right where needed, in the forest itself. Also, for the villager, whether here in Sawantwadi or anywhere else in rural India, water sources are revered and protected, even sacred; no village dweller will ever soil the river or stream, this is part of his basic home education. Compare this with the cities where the sewage system carries shit into the rivers and lakes and ponds and destroys them, and the urban dude is not even educated about it.
Since the village dwellers consume mostly what they produce from the land, this is the optimal desirable cyclical system which is in sync with the natural order: the vegetation produces food from soil, we eat it and absorb what we want of it, and then convert the rest back into mud to feed the soil – this is the essence of the local ecosystem.
I can see why the urban dwellers find the open defecation I have described difficult to accept, because all they see are urban slums and the sad sight of the urban poor living in inhuman conditions and being forced to defecate out in the open – and in sight of others. This visual disgusts them – as it should - and they would like to get rid of the sight. But how? Build enclosed toilets, they say. With the shit going where? Of course the city dweller doesn’t know the rest of the shit story which I have explained above, so in effect, all he is asking is for the city slum folks to join their shit with his as part of a growing, reeking and ecology-destroying sewage chaos.
Even as they abuse the poor slum-dweller, few city people pause to think how embarrassing this must be for the person, especially a woman, forced in this situation of open defecation in crowded cities. What they do not realize is that this is not a ‘toilet’ problem, this is a social and economic problem; the inhuman sight of open defecation in cities is the result of an inhuman economic system which destroys village communities and causes distress migration. And speaking of economics brings us to money and to digital money, the second part of this story.
Like with the soil-to-mud cycle in the toilet story, which we may also call the food cycle, there is also an economic cycle which links raw material, product, by-product and left-over (‘waste’). Here too, the essence is in the local. In an optimal economic system, almost the entire cycle is in the local environment, where the ‘waste’ of the first product cycle is the raw material of the next, and so on. Also, a maximum of local production is locally consumed, so that the balance of the eco-system is well-maintained. For example, if a community were to produce food to meet its own needs as well as a few other neighbouring communities, it can keep its river and ground water and forest resources in balance. But if it wants to recklessly produce a thousand times its own requirement for cash income, then it destroys the soil and water and forest resource (for example, Punjab with rice and wheat, Malaysia with palm oil, etc.). Modern economics says how much to produce depends on the ‘market demand’, never mind if the region itself is ravaged and destroyed, whereas human wisdom says how much to produce depends on the ecological balance and long-term sustenance – livelihood, society and ecology have to flourish together as one.
When economics is linked to society and ecology, i.e., in a civilized community, there is only limited use of paper currency. People have a relationship to land and society and culture and aesthetics. There is limited movement of goods in and out of the community and they don’t give undue importance to paper currency.
On the other hand, in today’s urbanized society, people are like free radicals, running amok all over the world. We are a rootless, culture-less and, let’s face it, quite an insecure lot who in the absence of real relationships with either society or nature, have given supreme importance to paper currency, or money. Every free radical’s aim is to take money from the other’s pocket, and to corner as much currency as possible. There is a rapid flight of money all around and what this implies is a massive movement of goods crisscrossing all over the globe: here is an archetypal story from a recent media report: apples were imported by an English supermarket from Europe and Canada, and sent to New Zealand for waxing its surface, and then brought back to London for sale, and then, it was still selling cheaper than the local apples made by the British farmer. Similarly, Chinese sarees and other textiles are being imported into India while the local textile industry is facing closure. This is an insane system based on money and trade which mines, manufactures and transports recklessly: it destroys local communities and their economies, it destroys the ecology and hastens climate change, and it actually lessens us as human beings.
The conversion from cash into cashless and electronic banking means to further promote and nurture this monstrous system. Already, in the small town of Sawantwadi where I live, the groundnut oil farmer is crushed under the imports of sunflower and palm oil which is available in local shops, and now, with e-commerce and electronic transactions, the government wants all local producers to suffer the pressure of online products coming from outside.
Even though paper currency is part of a centralised system, cash in hand is partly like a local tool; it has its limitations and the holder of the cash still retains some power over its use. But when technology becomes systemic through forced electronic transactions and shopping apps are designed to separate you from your e-money, it is a different game altogether, and such a technology can influence and change human behaviour. The whole aim now is to offer rural India on a platter to the sharks of e-commerce and to shamelessly push profligate consumption.
The growth of cities, the growth of sewage chaos and pollution, and the growth of mercenary economics are all related. They are part of one system. Of course, the existing local systems need improvements, but those improvements have to be in the direction of strengthening society and ecology, not destroying them. This implies moving towards local disposal and reuse of human waste, and a major thrust on local expenditure and circulation of money. Already many people in cities and villages in India are going in for dry toilets, seepage tanks, converting human waste into composted humanure, and even converting it along with cow manure into biogas - solving the problem right where it is instead of sending it somewhere else. Also, many more are re-settling from cities into smaller communities, engaging in small-scale production work and trying to live in a climate of sane local economics.
The important point to understand here is that both shit as well as money need to be recycled locally. What we call savings is the leftover after we have used what we wanted; it is the economic equivalent of shit which is the leftover after our body has used what it needs. Both have the potential to revitalize the local community, the shit fertilizes the soil, while money can revitalize production, and so both need to be deployed locally. Just like the urban system of sending the shit far away is not a solution, the use of electronic gateways to take our money out of the community is not a solution either.
If you support the spread of the urban toilet concept and the modern cashless concept without understanding the issue fully, you may unknowingly be contributing to more disaster. Through this blog, may I urge you to think again.