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India is drowning in its own excreta (scientificamerican.com)
181 points by ragsagar 1424 days ago | hide | past | web | 130 comments | favorite

Having been to India quite recently (and being Indian), I talked to a lot of family members there about this issue, among others, as I saw it happen time and again. One of the things that really frustrated me was the pure lack of accountability in general. I said 'among others' earlier because I am also referring to environment issues such as littering and pollution. The people there aren't dumb--they know all of these actions have harmful and negative effects on others' help and the general environment, but they would rather not care than care for the most part. Herein lies the fundamental problem...if you would rather not care, well there's no solution to that. I am originally from Northern India but on my most recent visit, we went to Mumbai. If the ocean wasn't brown and there was less pollution, it would hands-down be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But no one there seems to look at what could be but rather what it is and accept it.

So rather than spreading knowledge about these issues (which, don't get me wrong, is also good), there has to be an attitude change. You can't blame the government and I never like doing that, but it would be wonderful if the government would get involved in preventing these environmental/health jeopardizing actions. The problem with this, of course, that the country is so populated that it is extremely hard to make this drastic of an imposition and follow through with it.

>You can't blame the government

Of course you can. And you should. This is all about terrible - and in many cases non-existent- governance. Widespread public problems this this cannot be solved by individual citizens or organizations. They need the power, money and resources of a government.

> the country is so populated that it is extremely hard to make this drastic of an imposition and follow through with it.

Population is oft quoted as the root cause of most problems in India. Perhaps it is. But population certainly doesn't explain why these problems don't get addressed or get the attention they deserve. That again is because the government of India does not effectively govern and manage the country. Elected officials rule over their subjects via institutions and political systems whose goals are more aligned with keeping them in power than the welfare of citizens. They lack a fundamental understanding that their job as an elected official is to govern and address issues of their citizens.

Problems like this can only be resolved with effective governance from which springs awareness, policies, infrastructure, funding and programs. But what happens when the people governing simply don’t care for their people?

The government in a developing country like India is responsible for this, but they can't help it, unless they make it a national focus, followed by their vote bank. In reality, this problem is so widespread that the government needs a truly non-trivial amount of money to fix this, over an extended period of time. No democratic government in India can afford to fix this.

This is the reason why people in the third world hate poverty, and would do anything (like 'jugaar'[1]) to get out of that mess. [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jugaad

> Widespread public problems this this cannot be solved by individual citizens or organizations. They need the power, money and resources of a government.

More to the point, they need an entity that is both powerful enough to force change and not bound by the same incentives that the polluting companies are.

It's down to a Nash equilibrium, which is the stable strategy that obtains when everyone makes the best decision possible for them knowing what everyone else has decided. There's no way for anyone to unilaterally change their minds without losing something, which is why the strategy is stable even if it is completely insane.

In this case, the stable strategy is to pollute and not invest anything in cleanup, because the first company to unilaterally invest in cleaning up will lose profits relative to all of its competitors who aren't cleaning anything. That isn't acceptable. Therefore, Mumbai has brown oceans and Beijing has brown air.

The only way out is for some powerful entity that isn't bound by the same Nash equilibrium to step in and force a new equilibrium state by imposing penalties on the polluters. That's something that, realistically, only the government can do.

(What happens when governments get locked in a bad Nash equilibrium? Well, you get the Cold War, where Mutually Assured Destruction prevailed despite nobody really wanting to end the world in nuclear flame.)

Being locked in a Nash equilibrium is an interesting way to look at this. That perspective however is based on the idea that both parties (polluters and the entity responsible for controlling the pollution, say the government) are doing the best they can.

Without having experienced/researched it, it is not easy to appreciate the extent of apathy the governing structure in India exhibits towards its people. From the perspective of someone living in a developed country, its tempting to view this as a reasoned and logically approachable problem between different interest groups. That approach works well when the underlying institutions and the people embodying them are functioning well and functionally logically. When the people responsible for governing are simply not, well governing, then we don't need to go much further in unravelling why there is status quo. The status quo here is not because of a strategic/organic deadlock between two parties but rather because one of the parties is not doing its job.

Why isn't the government doing its job? I think it takes time for large democracies to come to age. I was talking about this to a friend who made the same point and asked me to read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age#Politics to get a sense for life in the US during a similar stage of its economic development as India is in today. The section Politics is especially resonant.

In America the democratic governing institutions have had time to mature over 237 years. Even with its flaws, it is the best governance humanity has been able to achieve at scale. It has had its rite of passage, from the early days of Indian removal, slavery, the mexican war, expansion, the civil war and many other wars plus thing like Women's suffrage. Indian government is merely 66 years old. And its not starting afresh in a "new land". Its trying to govern huge masses of people whose separate histories go back a long long time. India needs to go through its rite of passage and I guess one of those alleys is full of shit.

> (What happens when governments get locked in a bad Nash equilibrium? >Well, you get the Cold War

Except M.A.D worked. It's an example of a beneficial Nash equilibrium because the stable state was a military stalemate.

If one side had the bomb and the other didn't you get Hiroshima and Nagasaki all over again, and if neither had the bomb you'd get a conventional WW3.

"Except M.A.D worked."

For a truly insane value of "worked" - running terrible (and largely unnecessary) levels of risk for decades hardly has much to recommend it.

What would be the better alternative?

The risk was far less terrible than, say, a few dozen tactical nukes used by one of the sides in a third war across Europe, as the status quo of warsaw pact borders wasn't that acceptable to both armies, and only MAD ensured that the cold war didn't become hot.

Everyone would have been deterred with a tiny percentage of the weapons that eventually ended up being deployed - no political leader in the West or in the Soviet Union could ever have contemplated a single city being hit by an H-bomb. The Soviets, more than anyone, knew what it was like to lose tens of millions to a war - for all their faults they had no desire to repeat this experience.

MAD was the only possible strategy. However, the insane level of weaponry that was actually in place was, in my view, completely unnecessary. If your opponent is deterred by one level of force then having a hundred times this level does not make you safer.

[NB In case anyone interprets my position as somehow being in support of the Soviets - they were, as far as I am concerned, a criminal regime just as "evil" in their own ways as the other nightmares of the 20th century. However, the level of strategic threat they posed was wildly overstated for political ends.]

> no political leader in the West or in the Soviet Union could ever have contemplated a single city being hit by an H-bomb

They certainly did contemplate that as valid military options - they had even placed nuclear "mines" (underground room-sized nukes) in [less] populated friendly areas, planning to detonate them below enemy divisions if/when they are forced to retreat. So even nuking your own civilians was considered as an acceptable cost in case of a hot war.

Fortunately, having plans in place and actually carrying out these plans are two completely different things.

One UK political leader has had the courage to admit that even if the UK had received a nuclear attack from the Soviets he would not have launched a retaliatory strike. After all, if your deterrent fails - what exactly is the point in using it? [Not something you can admit at the time, of course.]

Would a West German political leader really have agreed to nuclear land mines being used? Most of the weaponry in the Cold War was there for posturing - no political leader ever expected to use them. Even Khrushchev (who was clearly a hard bastard) could only cope with the thought of nuclear weapons by accepting the fact that they would never actually be used - it was all a bluff.

It worked because it was short enough not to work.

> Except M.A.D worked. It's an example of a beneficial Nash equilibrium because the stable state was a military stalemate.

True if you ignore the externalities of a huge military build-up. A better solution would be both sides agreeing to not have nuclear weapons and not start a conventional WW3.

What can be more powerful than the collective power of masses? Neither can the government be blamed entirely nor can people just wash their hands off saying we are not powerful enough.In a city like Mumbai there is a wide diversity of income classes. There are people who see open defecation everyday on their way to work but they do nothing about it. The least they can do is go talk to the people in the slums about how open defecation is bad and how they should avoid it. It is better to take some steps and do something about problems than to wait for government or any other "powerful" body to come help you out. It is not just the slums that are suffering, diseases can be easily caught by anyone else who does use proper toilets and sanitation.

> go talk to the people in the slums about how open defecation is bad

The people in the slums probably know that it is bad, but the facilities available to them are so shit-house (literally and figuratively) that they choose to defecate onto the ground.

True only if the masses care. And (worldwide) they don't (otherwise there would be ~99% participation in voting, and so on)

> What can be more powerful than the collective power of masses?

An entity that isn't tempted to defect from a boycott:


> Milgrom, together with Barry Weingast and Avner Greif, applied a repeated game model to explain the role of merchant guilds in the medieval period (Greif, Milgrom and Weingast, 1994). The paper beings with the observation that long-distance trade in the somewhat chaotic environment of the Middle Ages exposed traveling merchants to the risk of attack, confiscation of goods and unenforced agreements. Merchants thus required the assistance of local rulers for protection of person, property and contract. But what reason did rulers have to provide this assistance? A key insight from the paper is that neither bilateral nor multilateral reputation mechanisms can support the incentives of a ruler to protect foreign merchants as trade reaches an efficient level. The reason is that at the efficient level the marginal value of losing the trade of a single or even a subset of merchants—in their attempt to punish a defaulting ruler—approaches zero. The threat is, thus, insufficient to deter a ruler from confiscating goods or to encourage their expenditure of resources or political capital to defend foreign merchants against local citizens. Effective punishment that will deter rulers' bad behavior requires more extensive coordination of effectively all the merchants who provide value for the ruler. The question then becomes, what incentives do the merchants have to participate in the collective boycott? Here is the role for the Merchant Guild, an organization that has the power to punish its own members for failure to abide by a boycott announced by the guild.

The parallels between this scenario and the one we're talking about are obvious: Any company big enough to cause serious damage by its pollution is not going to be harmed by a boycott unless nearly everyone in India participates, but the value gained from defecting (in game-theoretic terms) from the boycott is too large for that to happen. So, instead of forming a guild to punish defection, which just increases the misery in the world, we institute government agencies to punish polluters directly instead of trying to use boycotts to punish them. Say what you will about the morality of such a system, I can go outside today and see green grass, clear skies, and breathe the air without damaging my lungs.

> It is better to take some steps and do something about problems than to wait for government or any other "powerful" body to come help you out.

Except in this case, this do-it-yourself strategy has been demonstrated to not work.

You don't want too much Government in that department. But, it really is easy to fix by a simple Government regulation. Folks in Singapore used to litter a lot. Like really a lot. The place used to be extremely polluted too. So polluted and littered. We're talking about 1960s. At that time Singapore probably didn't look better than Mumbai looks today. Simple regulation: fine of $100 or more per each piece of paper you drop. Great income for the city, so hell yeah they would make sure to enforce it. And don't give me "cultural" differences stories because Singapore has rather large Indian population and they had to adjust to this too. How to get rid of pollution? Look at the UK. You know how Thatcher famously solved problem of pollution coming from big factories? She passed a law that said that the factory had to have its water input right below its waste water output. And factories need really clean water to operate and not waste water. In other words if the factory didn't invest in the top-of-the-line water treatment plant they could as well go out of business. Because waste water would enter the factory processing machines and probably brake them. You see, simple solutions work. Especially those that bring financial hardship on offenders. Hundres of buraucrats with their political agendas will just make matters worse.

>> Simple regulation: fine of $100 or more per each piece of paper you drop

While you are right about the fines imposed on Singaporean society, the Singapore government's policies had far wider scope and were coupled with efficient execution.

The fines were augmented with large scale awareness campaigns. Even today, you can see posters in many different places in the city exhorting citizens to not litter. Garbage bin density is so high, that you can mostly find one within 10 minutes of wherever you are. Of course, the various awareness campaigns were part of a much larger nation building effort which include a conscription system (all males serve ~2 years in the army), a compulsory national savings system, policies to maximize home ownership, and so on.

The Singapore bureaucracy itself quite a unique system in it's own right. The best students are awarded scholarships to study in Oxbridge, and they are expected to return and serve in the civil service.

Considering all of this, i'm sure solving these problems entails good governance, and is certainly not a "simple" matter of imposing fines.

Exactly. Good policies are worthless without good execution.

This can be said about any policy. And there is no way to find out how execution will go without at least trying to execute vs. complaining that execution won't work.

Funny. Because when you read my post you will certainly see that I explained the execution part. Good income source for Mumbai -- fines for littering that is. When fines are high enough and cops get their monthly quotas of them - as explained in my original post - this would lower the scale of the issue if not resolve it completely. I also have given an example of Singapore with large Indian population where this has worked.

It seems some people prefer to always complain than to actually at least try doing something...

You are right, and the reason that people don't care enough is because they have so much on their plate. I live in India, and I have realized that apathy is prevalent here because it is the only way to survive for the educated middle class Indian.

If you start thinking about the abject poverty, mind boggling corruption, lack of infrastructure, the safety of women, the general social practices, crime, population bomb (just to name a few) you will go crazy. Instead, the average Indian believes he lives in a super developed city, wears his / her goggles, pulls up the car window, turns on the AC and listens to Bollywood or American music. Simple, problem solved (at least for the day).

> the reason that people don't care enough is because they have so much on their plate.

This is the 'false cause' fallacy[1]. It is akin to saying, because I have too much work stacked up, instead of making progress, I'd rather cool my heels and not do anything at all, ever.

[1] https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/false-cause

No, it's not. It is akin to saying thay I have too much work stacked up, so instead of making progress on issue X, I'd rather invest my limited resources on issues other than X. That is not a logical fallacy, that's basic decisionmaking.

> That is not a logical fallacy, that's basic decisionmaking.

No. The parent had this to say---"Instead, the average Indian believes he lives in a super developed city, wears his / her goggles, pulls up the car window, turns on the AC and listens to Bollywood or American music. Simple, problem solved (at least for the day)."

Clearly, there is no decision making issue here. The issue is that there are several problems (the plate being full) but the onlooker (the more privileged in the quote) is not doing anything---it's not as if he/she chooses to tackle a part of the problem e.g., sanitation, he/she does nothing. That's why I said the reasoning amounts to false cause---it's not because the plate is full that people are not doing anything. More likely cause is that they simply don't care.

>>don't care enough is because they have so much on their plate.

No, its not because of that.

Its because people think unless they are directly effected by a problem they shouldn't care. Be it anything- Corruption, waste or blocked sewage pipes.

If your home has a blocked sewage pipe, which is likely to effect others soon. Try talking to your neighbors about writing/talking to the local municipal office about it. I bet not one will come forward. Now try after a few days when they are effected and see how they react.

> You can't blame the government

It is hard to believe that this words are said my some Indian.How can you,aren't you aware of indian political culture ? If Indian politicians stop playing politics and start concerning about Indian,this type of thing may not occurred it,atleast not in such phenomenon .

It's interesting that getting people to cooperate to improve the commons is so hard, given the obvious and stark benefits to everyone in doing so.

The only solution that has ever actually worked is for government to step in, tax, regulate, and build infrastructure. I'm not aware of any case in all of history where anything else has been effective.

I think this presents a real problem for libertarian theorists. The ball's in their court-- come up with an alternative mechanism and demonstrate it. Otherwise stop arguing against similar efforts over here to create public transit, common health care, etc.

> The only solution that has ever actually worked is for government to step in, tax, regulate, and build infrastructure. I'm not aware of any case in all of history where anything else has been effective.

That is far from the truth. One of the recipients of the 2009 Nobel (memorial) in economics documents cooperative solutions to commons problems: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2...

Are these theoretical or have they been done in the real world?

I have seen an endless procession of game-theoretic illustrations of nove problem solving techniques. In the real world the only technique I have seen work is "hey, you, stop shitting there or go to jail." The reason is that game-theoretic arenas are idealized computational worlds where all the rules and influences are known, while real environments are full of unknown perturbing factors not accounted for in the model.

Don't get me wrong. I would love to see such a real world example, since I dislike authoritarianism. But I'm just not encouraged by what I see. I do know that telling people "things would be better for all of you if..." never works. People would rather suffer than change their behavior, even if a change in behavior is low-effort and brings about an increase in wealth or standard of living. I actually sometimes think the problem is that people are insufficiently greedy-- inertia and laziness is more powerful than desire.

As evidence for my final cynical dictum I present: American eating habits. People would rather be miserable, fat, poisoned zombies than to stop eating empty carbs with a side of sugar and mystery meat. They choose the comfort of the known over a healthier, more alert, and longer existence.

They are all real world. Click the link.

  > documents cooperative solutions to commons problems
Such as? It would help everyone if you could summarize any aspect of the approach here instead of expecting everyone to read the 21-page PDF.

> American eating habits. People would rather be miserable, fat, poisoned zombies than to stop eating empty carbs with a side of sugar and mystery meat.

This is entirely untrue, as should be obvious from the absurd conclusion it forces you to reach.

> It's interesting that getting people to cooperate to improve the commons is so hard

As an Indian I attribute this to a combination of the bystander effect and broken windows theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory)...

By their powers combined, all of us (even those among the 'educated class') turn into captain litterbug.

> The people there aren't dumb--they know all of these actions have harmful and negative effects on others' help and the general environment, but they would rather not care than care for the most part.

Well that's just disgusting. I don't think you could pay me enough money to step foot in that country.

..says the American, whose average daily energy use has harmful and negative effects on global warming and rising sea levels, perhaps permanently damaging the planet for all future generations of humanity, but would rather not care than care for the most part.

That is what happens when a plethora of cultures have migrated to a region, each culture growing it's own little bubble. India has been a recipient of migrants from Central Asia, North Asia and Europe over the last two thousand years. India to it's smallest unit is a hive of ghettos, each ghetto not caring about the other one, while striving in the futile exercise of ensuring it's own survival. People don't care about cleanliness or have general civic sense because they don't see themselves as one community. The lack of the sense of "India" is appalling. We have Kashmiris, Biharis, Marathis, Gujaratis. Oriyas, Nagas, Tamils, Other South Indians, Bhaiyyas(from Uttar Pradesh), Punjabis and a thousand of other sub-cultures. India has not had Independence long enough to have that sense spread in it's massive population.

From the heights of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pataliputra, and later http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vijayanagara_Empire, India has been seizing to become a more "me and my tribe first" civilization due to the always constant influx of foreigners looking to settle. In 2013, it's just, "me and my 1000 square feet flat first".

Indians are in for a massive shock when they realize they can't keep themselves prosperous for long without thinking of the community first. The "Red Revolution"(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naxalite) and the massive protests in the big cities are indications of a society in great distress. It's going to implode. In any case, it's going to get much worse before it get's any better.

The 10th century chronicler, observed this about India: "The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner ... Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is." --http://www.shunya.net/Text/Blog/AlBeruniIndia.htm

The US is also mostly immigrants from different places. It is also more individualistic, but not in the sense you describe India. A lot of people know their families are mostly Irish/German/Whatever but for the most part no one cares. I'm not saying this because of "my country is better than yours" shit, but I'm legitimately interested in what causes the difference. Why do some groups assimilate into a common culture and others do not? Immigrants to the US did initially congregate and form their own communities like that.

U.S has had the benefit of favorable geopolitics(a good read:http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/geopolitics-united-states-p...). A large living space and a fairly sturdy inland waterways.Historically, the pressure on natural resources has been mitigated by easier transport of goods and people(unlike India which doesn't have inland waterways). In last few decades U.S has also closed gates on immigrants for good. Though that has slowed down the process of ghettoization, eventually large swathes of U.S will convert into American-Hispanic and other similar sub-cultures. And then it's just "my tribe vs. your tribe". The U.S is at the beginning of the road, and in time when there is a greater pressure on resources, you are looking at yet another India within the next 100-150 years.

Let's just hope that it doesn't happen too soon and that human social mechanics today is advanced enough to handle another great civilization falling into chaos due to clash of cultures. The good news is that this time we have the Internet.

The US has certainly not closed its gates on immigrants for good. Immigrants as a percentage of population is close to the highs of ~15% seen in the late 1800s and early 1900s and has been steadily rising since the 1970s.

When my parents grew up in postwar NYC, they were part of a fairly insular Irish-catholic community. Sundays at church, weekdays at the church school. The church you went to was dictated by your country of origin. They talked to the Italians, but eyebrows were raised if you were hanging out with the Polish or god-forbid, some protestant.

Prosperity broke down the ethnic neighborhoods. This still happens today. Talk to Chinese kids raised in America what the family dynamics are like when you are an "ABC". Ditto for children of Indian descent or really any group with strong ethnic identity.

You see continued strong ethnic clustering where the ethnic identity is also associated with business and prosperity. Greek Orthodox communities are good examples of this.

Ha! I don't know why are you putting multi-ethnicity of India and people being apathetic towards general well being of society they live in. For last 200 years or so, survival has been single important goal of a middle/lower class Indian family. We have been plagued with unchecked population growth, famines, diseases & poverty. You read some of books (By Premchand, Tagore) and it used to be worse. Winter used to kill people in thousands and then famines. For a country which was dependent on Agriculture for such a long time, uncertain rain (and fight over who gets the canal water) used to spell disaster.

The problem is - even today for middle class families for whom survival is not a problem, haven't started caring about India they live in. We take our world for granted. :(

I am confused by why this would be relevant since generally water, sewage, and garbage collection is managed by local municipalities. At least that's the case in every country I've been to (which is many, although sadly India is not yet one of them).

It's about the mentality of keeping your house clean by dumping your filth in the streets. "It's not my problem", is the common refrain here. And when citizen's don't care, the government is just going to be the reflection of that. We are about to reach the tipping point within this decade though. I see citizen watch groups forming every day. Protest becoming more violent and widespread vigilante justice in some far-fetched areas.

Agree with most of what you said. Just a note: 'Bhaiyya' is a 'taboo word' (or mildly derogatory, if you prefer) for folks from UP. Source: I am from UP, India.

So is a "Bihari", in most parts of India. I am from Bihar, India. That's why I said it: to emphasize on the classifications we have created and abide by. It's less derogatory than a "chamar" or a "musahar" or a "dom". I am sure there are terms even lower than these.

Taboos hold back.

I assure you that there are people like this in every country.

>>> The people there aren't dumb--they know all of these actions have harmful and negative effects on others' help and the general environment, but they would rather not care than care for the most part.

>Well that's just disgusting. I don't think you could pay me enough money to step foot in that country.

It's not a property of a country or nation, it is a basic behavior shared by homo sapiens as a species.

I've downvoted you as I don't see what this adds to the conversation. But on a personal level I'd like to add that it's your loss. You'd miss out on an incredible experience and witnessing one of the world's great cultures.

It's a bad situation to be sure, but it's still rude to denigrate the entire country like that.

> but they would rather not care than care for the most part. Herein lies the fundamental problem...if you would rather not care, well there's no solution to that.

I concur. It is the Apna Kaam Banta, Toh Bhaad mein jaaye Junta (Translation - As long as my work gets done, I don't care) attitude.

I think we Indians are still trying to overcome our false sense of cleanliness. We keep our own houses clean but expect divine intervention outside. Partly due to the still-existing caste system, where the lowest castes are responsible for clearing the muck, associations with this work is looked down upon. Therefore the uninterestedness of the typical Indian in solving the problem. Public toilets are few and far between, and most go unmaintained for lack of people willing to do the job. This attitude is changing fast though, thanks largely to improvements in technology and pay which make it safer to engage in and survive doing such work.

Open defecation is also practiced in San Francisco. I have seen is occurring in front of my apartments and on the street. You can find human feces on almost any walk through SOMA, the Tenderloin or Civic Center area if you know what to look for (expert tip: dogs don't look for hiding places to poo).

We have decided this is not a problem.

Others of us have decided not to live in San Francisco (or India).

I'm not being entirely flippant; I'm originally from the Bay Area, and the filth is a significant part of the reason I live in Tokyo now. Regularly encountering human feces is one of several things I don't miss.

I'm also from the Bay Area and have lived in SF proper for about 15 years. I don't think I've ever encountered human feces. Were you a sewage worker?

I wish I was a SF sewage worker I'd be retired with a nice pension by now ;)

Aloisius you just needed to walk around more in the downtown area - I walk everywhere. Next time you are here take a look around the NW corner of Mission and 8th in the nooks and crannies of the PG&E building. I'm betting you will find something if it has not just rained.

This stuff is just not well documented but this guy has a blog about his street in SOMA (somewhere just of 6th near Mission) that captures some of the flavor of the place:


Why is this stuff just invisible to so many people here?

Indeed. For example, our Muni and Bart escalators are toilets at night for homeless people, to the point where they literally seize up from so much human waste. And our government acts like this is normal and there's nothing to be done.

Everyone just ignores this for some reason.


The history of civilization is full of inventive people finding ways to make life better, and then doing so. Why does this not happen in these poverty stricken areas? Is it because anyone intelligent enough to do something about it leaves?

They don't have to jump straight to modern plumbing to have their lives improved.

There are many hypotheses about this; history only happens once, so it's hard to test them. Here are a couple of the more interesting ideas.

Jared Diamond: Eurasia runs east-west and has a large temperate zone. This supports enough biodiversity that the plants and animals you need to start farming can be found in one place. Other continents run north-south, lack biodiversity, and couldn't be farmed until Europeans introduced some critical species.

Lots of lawyers and economists, whose names I've forgotten: By default, someone bigger than you nicks whatever you make, until you get sick of making stuff. The exception is when you make weapons, and nick stuff from people bigger than you. Something strange and kind of miraculous happened in England a few centuries ago, and led to the only society that isn't like that.

And now for something completely different:

Could the strange and miraculous have been... Dennis Moore?! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLkhx0eqK5w

It does happen to some extent. I have always been impressed by the way slum areas build tons of functional structures from scrap. But there is only so much you can do with limited resources, and extreme poverty implies that.

Great article. Does convey some of the harsh realities. However, I didn't understand why outline such a well written article with a meaningless sensational headline. "Drowning in its own excreta", really?

link baiting is the thing to do these days! sad truth.

Catchy headlines have been important since before the Internet though.

There is an amazing citizen led initiative called the "The Ugly Indian" to clean Indian cities. They've been having significant impact in Bangalore.

See some of their work here,



Overpopulation is a problem because one government can only properly manage a limited number of people (by "properly manage" I mean not control, that's easy to do by controlling the upper class and having decent police/military/intelligence systems, but provide adequate living conditions for, actually solve health and education issues etc.).

Compare to the US ratio of population of ~300M population to 1 government (even ignoring that in the US states have real autonomy and are mostly self governing!) to India's ratio of ~1200M to 1 government. Similar ratios for European countries too. India should be at split in at least 4 different countries, with different governments, internal and external policies, armies and maybe even a "healthy" dose of conflict/competition between them. It would be worse for some new countries and for some people, but on average better for most. Sticking together is not the way to solve a poverty type problem!

Here's an extract on this topic from a fantastic book called 'Poor Economics':

Most experts agree that access to piped water and sanitation can have a dramatic impact on health. A study concluded that the introduction of piped water, better sanitation, and chlorination of water sources was responsible for something like three-fourths of the decline in infant mortality between 1900 and 1946 and nearly half the overall reduction in mortality over the same period. Moreover, repeated bouts of diarrhea during childhood permanently impair both physical and cognitive development. It is estimated that by piping uncontaminated, chlorinated water to households, it is possible to reduce diarrhea by up to 95 percent. Poor water quality and pools of stagnant water are also a cause of other major illnesses, including malaria, schistosorniasis, and trachoma, any of which can kill children or make them less productive adults.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is that today, at $20 per household per month, providing piped water and sanitation is too expensive for the budget of most developing countries. The experience of Gram Vikas, an NGO that works in Orissa, India, shows, however, that it is possible to do it much more cheaply. Its CEO, Joe Madiath, a man with a self-deprecating sense of humor who attends the annual meeting of the world’s rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in outfits made from homespun cotton, is used to doing things differently. Madiath’s career as an activist started early: He was twelve when he first got into trouble—for organizing the labor on the plantation that his father owned. He came to Orissa in the early 1970s with a group of left-wing students to help out after a devastating cyclone. After the immediate relief work was over, he decided to stay and see if he could find some more permanent ways to help the poor Oriya villagers. He eventually settled on water and sanitation. What attracted him to the issue was that it was simultaneously a daily challenge and an opportunity to initiate long-term social change. He explained to us that in Orissa, water and sanitation are social issues. Madiath insists that every single household in the villages where Gram Vikas operates should be connected to the same water mains: Water is piped to each house, which contains a toilet, a tap, and a bathing room, all connected to the same system. For the high-caste households, this means sharing water with low-caste households, which, for many in Orissa, was unacceptable when first proposed. It takes the NGO a while to get the agreement of the whole village and some villages eventually refuse, but it has always stuck to the principle that it would not start its work in a village until everyone there agreed to participate. When agreement is finally reached, it is often the first time that some of the upper-caste households participate in a project that involves the rest of the community.

Once a village agrees to work with Gram Vikas, the building work starts and continues for one to two years. Only after every single house has received its tap and toilet is the system turned on. In the meantime, Gram Vikas collects data every month on who has gone to the health center to get treated for malaria or diarrhea. We can thus directly observe what happens in a village as soon as the water starts flowing. The effects are remarkable: Almost overnight, and for years into the future, the number of severe diarrhea cases falls by one-half, and the number of malaria cases falls by one-third. The monthly cost of the system for each household, including maintenance, is 190 rupees, or $4 per household (in current USD), only 20 percent of what is conventionally assumed to be the cost of such a system.


Would be interested to hear about any similar books you'd recommend.

Sorry I cannot recommend any other book on this topic - nothing else I have read about tackling poverty comes close to Poor Economics.

By the way, Esther Duflo (co-author of the book) has a TED talk worth watching: http://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_...

Poor Economics criticizes this book (by Sachs) "who posits that poor people are poor because they are caught in one or more poverty traps" --http://www.philanthropyaction.com/articles/book_review_poor_...

India is what you get when governance gives way to bureaucracy, morality gives way to greed and spirit gives way to helplessness. Indians die by millions on the wayside consumed by hunger, disease and violence - and the well to do 20% looks down from their glass houses built on excreta. Welcome to oldest civilization!

Indian here. Yes population is the biggest problem for us.Which naturally leads to many problems like this one.

* I agree with author this is absolutely true for slums like Mumbai. (But does not apply to whole India. Second tier urban areas scenario is not this bad ) * I agree that in most of rural area practice open defecation.

In general whey open defecation is in practiced,

* Since we have too many people even one bathroom in rural area per home is not sufficient(seriously) * Attitude of people towards cleanliness.


* Yes lots of schemes have come(more than 10-20 years back and still continuing) in its slowly picking up. * The best scheme in my state(Karnataka)the govt is paying Rs 7000/- for each house to encourage them to construct toilet from 'gram panchayath'. * Thanks to media and celebs who are getting involved more these days.

Yes we have problem, we need to solve it.

Can they construct decent toilet with 7000 Indian Rupees. A truck load of sand costs more than 7000Rs.

Can they? I don't know. What I know is that you don't need a truck load of sand to construct a toilet.

imho the overpopulation needs to be adressed the chinese way. I don't think that throwing tech at it will solve the problem. I remember vaguely, that one indian gov. wanted to sterilize slum inhabitants and wasn't reelected.

The population is not a problem, the population is a resource. Of course, to be (more) valuable (than it is now) it has to receive some attention/investment. The sterilization of people that possess the potential of growing and becoming beneficial to society is, for the society as a whole, a form of self-mutilation.

I agree to certain degree, but the indian pop.growth is just not sustainable. Closing the eyes doesn't make it go away: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:India-demography.png

Are you writing that they should have been pro-sterilisation? They could just round up and shoot all the slum inhabitants so they wouldn't need to wait an entire generation to be rid of them.

china has a one-child-only policy since 79. I thought that this is known http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy

Is this for India? Or the world? I'll assume you mean world as that's somewhat less harsh and less NIMBY. Alternatively, education, good government and a decent economy and birth rates fall. And there is then the bonus of no fascist/pseudo communist population control bent.

Globally? It took a few decades for Europe (criminalise poverty, ship the poor to the US/Canada/Australia), and lose most poor people in a couple of wars, followed by a giant injection of foreign funds for reconstruction.

India doesn't have the luxury of colonies, and emigrating from India is far harder than emigrating from mid-nineteenth century Europe was.

India isn't alone. Dubai is having a massive problem with sewage and in the US there are a lot of communities that have septic tanks which, when they fail, can cause ground water pollution. Even in St. Louis, Missouri, USA we still have overflows in which the sewer system excess gets purged into streams and rivers when it becomes too much to handle for the sewer system. A lot of US cities have this problem.

And this is in 2013. We have a robot on Mars, people in space, and flags on the moon.

The problem is that our only current solution is an extremely expensive underground sewage system with thousands of miles of pipes, treatment plants, and storage containers which take a long time to build and are expensive to maintain and replace. That's not something realistic for fast growing communities or rising countries. There's really no cheaper better alternative.

Is this an industry ripe for disruption. Dare anyone challange the sewer/septic tank gods?

> Dubai is having a massive problem with sewage

I don't understand why people always bring this up about Dubai. In 2010 a new treatment plant was completed that nearly doubled capacity. Dubai probably has a better sewage system than most US cities now (and the funds to expand it if needed). The controversy was that in 2009 there were lots of queues for sanitation trucks to dump their waste, so a lot of drivers just illegally dumped it. This resulted in some of the waste ending up in the sea water, so there were concerns over the health of beach goers (tourists). Where I'm from in the UK, up until around 15 years ago, raw sewage was dumped into the sea by design [0].

[0] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-332000-90000...

The controversy was that in 2009 there were lots of queues for sanitation trucks to dump their waste

The controversy was that ultramodern, brand new, skyscrapers in what was pretty much an all new from scratch city that hosted the tallest building in the world had to have sanitation trucks to haul away the waste at all. It was symbol of ultra-superficiality.

I don't know what your point is here.

nobody thought to build a sewer system

That's my fault for not keeping up with the times. Sorry I didn't know that was over and fixed. My original point still stands, when cities (even rich ones) expand very rapidly, a traditional sewer system takes too long to build to keep up with demand.

A traditional sewer system is not more complex than a traditional fresh water system or a traditional paved road system – in fact, it might well make sense to build the sewers when you pave the roads (or slightly before that…).

What it does take is some planning and some functional local authority.

No worries, but I'm surprised people always bring it up :) As I said before, it wasn't really much different where I was from in the UK 15 years ago. I expect there are other places in the west where it is still the case.

As I understand it a large amount of sewer overflow in the US comes from old combined sewers. Replacing them is already in action but it's a slow and expensive process as many of the sewers built before the 60s/70s were combined. My point is that I don't think it's fair to group the US in with Dubai and India as the US faces sewer problems of a different sort entirely. Our overflow comes from rainwater overwhelming the system and not from excessive human use.

You're 100% right. In the US, the problems are about handling the days where the top 5% of storm waterflow overwhelms the system.

Another thing to think about is that many sewer systems were built before big suburban buildouts, and typically the original urban areas are located near rivers or the ocean... so the suburban systems often connect to the older urban infrastructure.

Many of the changes in development patterns in the last 50-75 years have increased stormwater flows. Roads, shopping centers and other landscape features are either impermeable or are designed to divert water "away". And... there are fewer wetlands or other areas to absorb the water, so you're hammering these systems with massive amounts of water that were really rare 100 years ago.

"Fixing" things in the US is tough depending on the location. Many places are implementing strategies to reduce peak storm waterflow, like mandating swales or ponds for big sprawl-ly development projects and building big stormwater tanks/basins under roadways in more densely developed areas.

Are there companies working on a plug-in block (think of something in between a vending machine and shipping container in size) that could convert human excrement to bagged, saleable/usable fertiliser pellets?

Incidentally: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_soil

Someone who knows their shit might be able to tell me what challenges prevent this from existing, but I would've thought that something that could be dumped on site and tapped into somehow could be useful.

Surely one day technology would allow for solar + reliable energy storage + large rain water storage + waste processor to mean that many people could do away with a lot of the typical grid services fixed to a house? (e.g., electricity/water/wastewater would be dealt with)

Our nation's capital still has the same problem, although it's in the process of being fixed:


I think you're missing the point, the article is talking about simple access not sewage system reliability. They're not completely mutually exclusive, but different topics nonetheless.


I think the only way something like this can be disrupted is by a party seeing an opportunity.

I think this opportunity can be biogas digestors (either through aerobic or anaerobic processes). I think this can incentivize modernization of waste management (to maximize efficiency and profit). After building my own with a friend in college with waste from our diners (and obtaining measurable amounts of naturalgas with a rudimentary rig), i'd say this could be better than trying to convince the massess to change their behaviors overnight.

Composting toilets are the future.

Would that work on a massive scale? What's the reason it isn't done now?

You still have to physically remove the composted feces which is a logistical nightmare in an urban area, there are reliability problems with maintaining the proper environment for proper decomposition (temperature & moisture) and compared to pit toilets are bigger and more expensive (though in an urban area, you don't have the land for pit toilets).

Really, a wet sewage system is superior for densely packed areas.

Wet doesn't mean pipes to a processing plant necessarily though. Ive seen an amazing system that used a moderate sized pond, masses of reeds and somehow this processed the water and filtered it. There were fish and ducks swimming in it. That said, if dealt with waste from one house. I'm not sure this would scale very well.

A picture I took few years back. This was in the heart of the City of Mumbai (Bombay), near residential and lots of commercial establishments.


4 people in a home hate each other 24x7 for the past 3000 years (caste).

What will an Intellectual (Gorbachev) do?

Give them their share of land/Independence and tell them to go and build their own home/nation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perestroika aka https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communal_Award

Reminds me of the horse manure crisis in NYC http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/16/09111...

Not that any comparison can be made, they are really completely different.

This sort of stuff makes me sad. But also strangely curious, since the suggestion is that these conditions are not survivable and yet people do survive. Are millions of people dying in Mumbai's slums and we're not hearing about it?

From TFA:

> Around 1,000 children below the age of five die every day in India from diarrhea, hepatitis-causing pathogens, and other sanitation-related diseases, according to the report of United Nations Children’s Fund.

>>Are millions of people dying in Mumbai's slums and we're not hearing about it?

Its a very complicated issue.

Don't read too much into it. The fact that they live in slums has sometimes little correlation with their purchasing power or sometimes their financial status.


This slum is a mini industry in itself having exports of over $650 million an year. Its possible many people living their have their own cars or even their own homes else where, which they have rented out for some monthly income.

This is a classic case of Confirmation Bias[1] - if no one else is cleaning it up, it means I'm not responsible myself.


What most people do not realize is this: Mumbai also has the most expensive house in the world - thats right, in the world:


For the curious: http://www.forbes.com/2008/04/30/home-india-billion-forbesli.... Tastes differ, let's say.

Could there be money in it if somehow it could be converted into fertilizer (obviously with some hygienic challenges)?

no mention of india spending $1 trillion on infrastructure over 2013 - 2018.

Spending money and seeing the results of spending the money are two different things entirely.

spending $1 trillion by 2018 is alot of money.. Dont you think articles like these are a precursor for the year 2018 ?

why are we hearing about indian sanitation and infrastructure NOW ?!

Even if true, 20%-30% of that is probably taken as a winners fee by the politicians. So the contractors have to buy substandard materials and labor, causing this "infrastructure" to last a decade or two, at best.

India is electing a new government in 2014. Giving the $1 trillion expenditure a better chance of curbing said problem.

Most of the contractors will be foreign. e.g. The North-South Rail Corridor being built by Japan's International Cooperation Agency


Most countries I care to live in don't have issues of open defecation and water sources contaminated with shit.

Generally, people care about basic hygiene issues before they look at the other stuff. If a country's hygiene is so bad it has a 100x larger chance that it might kill you, the rest is irrelevant.

Between that and the corruption, India is one country I'm not setting foot in for the foreseeable future. It's a shame, because it is also a cradle of humanity with much history, but I guess that doesn't stop it from turning into a shithole... (Quite literally)

> India is one country I'm not setting foot in for the foreseeable future.

Yes its a shame. You don't have to live there. But 1 of every 6 fellow humans do. And not all of them openly defecate. Some are even pleasant enough to shake hands with. Many take a lot more antibiotics to ward off the germs but still die early. Lucky for you you don't have to die early :) but armed with antibiotics and Fiona's travel guides (http://bit.ly/ZR6wtm), you can experience a sliver of the place which is "also a cradle of humanity with much history".

Which in a round-about way - means that sanitation problems in India might turn into problems for the rest of humanity through the over/misuse of antibiotics leading to widespread resistance.

Indeed, that coupled with poor regulation of prescription drugs and lack of awareness of dangers of antibiotic misuse.

I was researching global antiobiotic misuse and came upon an interactive map of antiobiotic resistance for major diseases http://www.cgdev.org/page/looking-drug-resistance Be sure to click on the individual diseases as the default there is Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis

A more detailed report http://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/1424207_file_CGD_DR...

This. Oh my gosh, this.

The idea that people in India are regularly dosing themselves with antibiotics just to get by is a terrifying prospect for disease outbreaks.

Most countries would, I'm pretty sure, have waterways contaminated with shit. Mine does (New Zealand) and most I've been to have had warnings about not drinking stream water, even in remote ares. Open defecation though? Nope.

I have yet to spend any significant amount of time in a country where I couldn't drink tap water. India is clearly one of those.

Even in the US you can drink tap water, though it tastes awful because it's usually so heavily chlorinated.

One thing that I think is sad is the poor Dalit ("Untouchable") girls who have it as their job to collect other people's shit using bits of cardboard or tin :-(

The problem is that government clearance aren't up to speed with how the population housing need is growing. This leads to unauthorized colonies, unplanned, un-organised and unhygenic.

Few hundred years ago, the Harrapan Civilization had one of the best water & sewer management systems. But today, finding a public pool in Delhi, is like finding a Oasis in the desert.

In Delhi itself, the biggest issue, surrounding sewer and management of water bodies is the cleaning up of Yamuna River, many have fought for it, many have eaten corruption money out of it, subsequent governments have failed to address this issue.. about time it comes into the limelight.

For an excellent book on sanitation, I can recommend "The Big Necessity" by Rose George.


After reading this, it makes me want to hug my toilet...

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