The Places We Love VII: Cleaning Up India

Rani-ki-Vav, "The Queen's Stepwell," in Gujarat, India. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
India’s newest World Heritage site: Rani-ki-Vav—“The Queen’s Stepwell”—in Gujarat, India. (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)

As I’m getting my bags out of the taxi at the Mumbai airport, the driver offers me the plastic bottle of water supplied with the ride, now half empty.

“No thanks,” I say, struggling with my luggage. He shrugs and tosses the bottle on the pavement, right there in front of the terminal.

And that, I think, is one reason India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a herculean task ahead with the Swachh Bharat—“Clean India”—campaign he launched this October. People here are used to discarding garbage on the ground. Even when there’s a trash can available—and usually there isn’t—using one is not a national habit.

My flight takes me to a speaking gig at a sustainable tourism conference in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, also claimed to be one of the tidiest in India. Even here I would see plenty of trash lining the roads as I tour Gujarat’s splendid temples, stepwells, and monuments. The mess doesn’t diminish the value of the tourism experience, but it does detract from enjoyment of it, like watching a great movie projected on a torn screen. Make no mistake: From a tourism point of view, India is a great movie, its variety of cultures and history still under-appreciated.

India's sacred cows graze pastures of trash. (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)
India’s sacred cows here graze a pasture of trash. (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)

Trash may seem a petty matter in a developing country that still faces enormous economic and educational challenges. Yet abundant garbage and roadside debris not only presents a health risk, research shows such visual pollution can breed additional environmental and social damage simply by setting a low standard. So I hope that every tourist authority in India is supporting Swachh Bharat.

The Gandhi connection

Modi timed his announcement for Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, because the leader of India’s nonviolent drive for independence championed cleanliness. Gandhi was Gujarati himself. The ashram he established in a suburb of the state capital, Ahmedabad, is an obligatory and inspiring stop for any visitor to the city. “A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city,” Gandhi said, and today’s caretakers seem to keep the ashram grounds appropriately tidy. For potential international visitors, a cleaner India is a more attractive India—with accompanying economic benefit for Indians.

Tourists could help, too. Unlike some of China’s now over-priced attractions , many of India’s  cultural sites are delightfully cheap. Perhaps too delightfully. When I visited the spectacular, thousand-year-old stepwell called Rani-ki-Vav in Gujarat—imagine an upside-down richly carved temple dug seven stories deep to a communal pool—the entry fee for a foreigner was only 100 rupees, about two dollars. The grounds were nicely maintained and relatively trash free, but I would happily pay twice the fee if I knew the money went to cleaning up the trashy roadsides on the way there.

A tougher task than orbiting Mars

That week, I was applauding India’s success in becoming only the fourth country to put a space probe in orbit around Mars. I can only imagine some Indian commentator somewhere saying, post-Apollo style, “If we can put a satellite around Mars, why can’t we manage our garbage?”

Trash piles against a fence outside Gujarat's Champaner World Heritage site. (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)
Trash piles against a fence outside Gujarat’s Champaner World Heritage site. (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)

Well, it’s harder. According to the Times of India, the country generates 68 million tons of garbage a year, enough to cover more than 200,000 football fields at least 25 feet deep. Modi wants his huge nation cleaned up by 2019. Hercules had it easy.

It’s not just a matter of removing the trash; people need a place to put it. Once the necessary infrastructure is in place, the biggest challenge will be converting more than one billion people to picking up litter rather than contributing to it. It could take a generation.

My Mumbai cabbie will probably keep tossing plastic in the street, but maybe his sons and daughters won’t.






Human Journey

Meet the Author
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC