I am on Platform 3, Gaya Junction railway station. It is cold and fogbound. An elderly gentleman, who was given the task by my driver of shepherding me and my belongings to the right platform, takes the money I offer him in thanks, and departs. My driver also has gone. He was a great companion. A replacement will be waiting for me at Kolkata.
It is 5.30 am, and I have already been forewarned the train will be late. Apparently they are always late. The estimated time of arrival is 10 am, but I am told not to be optimistic as many an obstacle and circumstance stand between me, here on Platform Number 3, and the India Rail train, somewhere out there. But my situation is such that matters of train timetables are of little interest. Other matters hold my attention. The condition of my stomach has finally brought me to that moment, the moment that all first-time travellers to India hold in dread; the washroom, the washroom of the squatting kind. In a public place. It is the sole focus of my concern, and the magnitude of the issue was growing greater by the minute.
There was a rumour, I was informed, that the sensibilities of foreigners would get sympathetic treatment if they knocked politely at the station master’s office, and like a lowly suppliant to him, humbly enquire “toilet?” The rumour was that the station master, a person of considerable power and responsibility, and consequently enlightened to Western sensitivity about such functions, would let you use his. So I found the station master’s office, and knocked with sufficient subservience on the door. The room was packed with staff, all sitting around intent on some subject of discussion. “Toilet?” I enquired with the appropriate questioning nuance. They stopped talking. “2nd Class” one of them snapped in reply, pointing his finger in the direction of what I later found to be the Second Class rest room. That was the limit of civility and informative discourse I received. I spent the next half hour wondering whether his impoliteness was due to some injustice his family had suffered under the British, that maybe he was just a rude little officious upstart, or possibly that he had instantly worked out I was Australian and, chagrined that India was getting a right little smashing by us in the cricket, I was the target of his frustration; nothing personal therefore intended.
But I was relieved, nevertheless, for his direction; the inference of my turn of phrase not withstanding. Sure enough, there was the rest room, right at the very back of the Second Class waiting room, and lots of locals in waiting to closely observe me. I entered, there was a line up. Minutes ticked by, but finally a cubicle was free. I’ll avoid further detail, except to say that “yes” there is a God. More, for a friendly rest room attendant, suitably armed with a garden hose, was there to wash out the cubicle after I had left. True, I do not lie. His demeanour was all so casually unbothered, it all came with his job description, but I had this sneaking feeling that, here in this place, at this time, I was occupying a caste status less than that of an ‘Untouchable’; the hereditary Hindu group held to defile those of higher caste on contact. It gave me new insight into what being classed as an ‘other’ might truly imply.
The uncertainties of the human gastrointestinal tract, mine in particular, were not my only concern for last night I had put my hand deep into the Nether World of the nagas. Deep down I had reached, right to the furthest depth of it, for there was a cache of rich jewels in the bottom of that ant’s hole. Then, at the very instant that I grasped a rich gem, one of those snoozing snakes woke up and bit me. Or so it seemed, for when I awoke this morning my hand ached, several finger joints were numb, and there was a suspicious looking swelling above my wrist. Something had happened. But I know not what, for there was no sign of a bite, nag, spider or vampire. My predicament was worse, for I had also lost a significant degree of strength in my hand, thus my reliance on the obliging gentlemen to carry my belongings to the platform. Thankfully, the condition of the hand had not deteriorated since awaking. To ease my sad spirits I purchased from the resident platform vendor a packet of ‘Marie Gold’ plain biscuits and a coffee; less than 30 rupees; a steal. Later I return for a second coffee, but find the price has risen.
Sitting back at my place on the platform I revert to the childhood diversion of ‘train spotting’. Here there is no shortage of them, goods trains, long-haul passenger express trains, and local commuters. A dark blue coloured passenger train disgorges hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims, their faces warmed against the cold by woollen ‘beanies’ and thick scarves, their backs bent over by the carrying of large packs. A green and yellow striped electric goods locomotive, engine number 31236, lumbers past hauling a long line of empty open trucks. A second stub-nosed goods train, locomotive number 23902, its trucks full of ore, passes at greater speed in the opposite direction. The rail tracks are covered in rubbish, mainly plastic bags. Next to me on the platform a well-dressed woman drinks from a plastic bottle, and when this is empty she casually casts it amongst the rubbish already accumulated on the tracks. She disregards the rubbish bin close by. A woman dressed in a dirty green sari, and a shawl too thin to keep out the cold, hurries along the tracks, picks up the bottle and adds it to a quantity she already has in a sack. Do I consider the action of the litter bug with scorn, or do I thank her for elevating by some minute amount the economic status of the woman walking the rail tracks in search of a livelihood?
Local commuter trains continue to come and go. Unlike the express trains constantly emptying out their contents of Buddhist pilgrims, these are mainly filled with local Indians arriving or departing daily to their place of work. One passenger train, just behind me, commences to pull away from the platform. I hear screams and turn to see a woman fall from an open door. It looked as if she would tumble into the space between the carriage and the platform. I thought a child had already fallen there. Seeing Death, and possessing only the powers of cowardice, I avert my eyes. People continue to scream, and the train grinds noisily to a stop. The woman survived unhurt, and there was no child below the train.
Beggars appear. I pretend to be asleep, and hold tight to my luggage.
Body functions, and the prevalence of rubbish. Here, in this city and this country, it is too easy to be pious in the appraisal and condemnation of it. So, for an exercise in comparison, it seems timely to review the track record of Western civilization in the not too distant past. Pollution has a long history but even in the old Indus Valley civilization, the likes of ancient cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had freshwater tanks to provide for drinking supplies and baths, and to separate drainage and sewerage systems to safeguard health.
By 312 BCE Italy’s Tiber River was so polluted that Rome needed to construct aqueducts to provide safe water supplies to the city, and by the 1st Century CE the city depended on nine of them. The rise of major cities in Western Europe, from the 11th Century onwards, resulted in the same situation confronting civilizations thousands of years earlier. In the 13th Century the Thames River was polluted to such an extent that water needed to be piped to London from Tyburn spring, a place now swallowed by London’s growth. However, drinking water continued to be drawn from the Thames well into the 19th Century, the first filtration plant not being built until 1869. Paris was forced to switch to artesian water supplies in 1852 owing to the high pollution levels in the Seine. But as industrialisation spread and cities grew maintaining a safe water supply increasingly became a problem. Early in the 19th Century many industrial towns in England were already building reservoirs, but the building of these resulted in the flooding of valleys, agricultural land and villages. Between 1839 and 1847 an eighty kilometre long aqueduct was built to supply water to Marseilles, and between 1885 and 1893 a forty eight kilometre tunnel was built to supply New York with water.
Rarely though was water supplied to individual houses, such that water had to be carried by hand or cart to supply individual consumption. They had yet to invent blue-capped bottles of ‘spring’ water. Paris in the 18th Century depended on water carriage by 20,000 water carriers, and in the mid 19th Century the city of Coventry had running water in only 350 of its 7,000 houses. In Moscow at the start of World War I only 9,000 houses in the city’s central area had piped water, the rest were dependent on 140 wells. By 1926 a quarter of a million of its residents still depended on ponds and rivers of uncertain water quality. In 1962 a significant proportion of the dwellings in Paris still had no running water. Though water supply systems and treatment methods have improved, there has been a significant increase in consumption.
Freshwater is a scarce resource, less than 0.5 percent of the Earth’s water is in this form. There is a dramatic imbalance in its usage. The average American uses, directly, or indirectly for industrial purposes, about 7,000 litres a day, the average Indian about 25 litres a day. In Australia much of the water supplied for human consumption, and thus of high quality, is used to wash cars, flush toilets, water lawns or to hose down residential concrete driveways. In many parts of the world deep well aquifers are being rapidly depleted, this phenomenon not restricted to the Western world. For example, in Bangkok the water table has fallen more than ninety feet since 1958. In the West, where once human wastes were the principal cause of pollution, now it is the contaminants from industrialisation and fertilizer run-off that give major cause for concern. In 1990 twenty percent of the wells in California had pollution levels above official safety limits and Hungary had nearly 800 towns and villages with water unfit for drinking. In the same year ten percent of the aquifers in Great Britain were polluted above World Health Organisation safety standards.
Until the end of the 19th Century few cities anywhere in the world had kept human waste and rubbish from polluting their water supply. There was a systematic failure in the disposing of waste. Prior to the 20th Century the stench associated with Western cities, due to rotting waste, pools of urine and decomposing animal manure, was overwhelming. The waste often blocked streams and rivers. In the mid 17th Century Paris was described as a horrible place, so foul smelling from the stench of rotting offal and the use of streets as urinals. Most cities in early modern Europe had no lavatory facilities at all, for the most part these were nothing more than a hole in the ground or an outside wall. Visitors to the Louvre relieved themselves in the corners of rooms, and a row of yew trees in the grounds of the, now destroyed, Tuileries palace provided an open air toilet. Chamber pots were simply emptied out through a window to the misfortune of those below. Cellars found use for the disposal of excrement. Dead animals also littered the streets, and in 14th Century Paris about 300,000 animals a year were slaughtered and their butchered remains left to rot in the streets. In 1388 the English parliament made laws to stop the dumping of rubbish in the streets but these were ineffectual. In 1652 a law of similar intent in the city of Boston met with equal disregard. Madrid in 1697 was described as very dirty, rubbish being habitually thrown from windows, and torrents of evil smelling water obstructing the use of the streets.
Overpopulation and crowding produced appalling sanitation conditions. In Kensington, London, a disused eight acre brick pit was left to collect the sewage from the surrounding neighbourhood. It stank, yet people lived close by. In 1848 London had thousands of houses without any form of drainage, the greater number of these having overflowing cesspools the contents of which flowed freely into streets and adjacent properties. Hundreds of streets had no sewers at all, and filth lay about in rooms and yards. Improvements in water supply and the invention of the water closet merely had the effect of transferring the problem. The effect of the flushing of toilets was to turn England’s rivers into open sewers full of slowly decomposing waste of all sorts. The sewers of London drained to the river Fleet and this in turn emptied into the Thames. During hot weather the stench was unbearable and during ‘The Great Stink’ of 1848 sittings of the House of Commons had to be abandoned. Though there were advances in waste treatment and disposal, the improvements were slow to be taken up. Moscow did not have its first sewer until 1898 and in 1990 eighty percent of the sewage in Leningrad and Estonia still entered rivers untreated. In America untreated sewage is still dumped into the sea, and garbage scows daily dump the refuse of New York’s metropolis somewhere offshore.
For centuries the thoroughfares of large cities were littered with excrement from thousands of animals, for these were the main means of carriage. In 1830 it is estimated that animals excreted about three million tons of manure on the streets of British towns, most of it left to rot by the wayside. Horse-drawn traffic greatly increased in the 19th Century and this massively exacerbated the quantity of manure and urine deposited. In addition, animals were terribly overworked, few lasted more than two or three years, and many died in the streets. In 1912 Chicago had to remove 10,000 dead horses a year from the city’s thoroughfares. The problem of animal excrement, and the disposal of dead animals, was never solved. Only the introduction of cars, trucks and buses brought an end to it. These have brought their own form of pollution, though city pollution from poisonous palls of smoke had long preceded the introduction of the internal combustion engine. The impacts of industrial pollution throughout the world are legend and continue apace. There is no need to reiterate its many on-going contributions to the poisoning of air, soil and water.
In Hometown ‘waste’ and things no longer cherished or wanted are dumped conveniently out of site in a big hole, thrown illegally at night into public reserves and bushland, or are pumped in various states of treatment into the ocean. Up until the late 1950’s the night soil man once a week emptied the waste from our family’s backyard outhouse and dutifully dumped it into a vacant bush allotment 3 kilometres away. Abandoned cars, old refrigerators and coils of rusty fencing wire are allowed to spill from the back paddocks of farms into rivers. Dead cattle are dragged out of sight to rot, there to serve stinking as the feast of feral dogs. Industrial waste cascades into the upper reaches of estuaries. During times of flood all manner of garbage and other gross pollutants, flushed from inland, find their way to the sea, only to be thrown up at high tide along the seashore. The streams and creeks of Sydney’s suburbs are piped over, or are encased in concrete, and only stolen and abandoned shopping trolleys find a home there. Duck Creek, a tributary of western Sydney’s Parramatta River, was described by Captain Arthur Phillip in the first days of Australia’s European settlement as a wild place of nature’s beauty in which birdlife abounded. In 1970 it was infested by weeds, and a place of introduced rats, industrial off-casts and building site refuse. It was a haven of stolen cars and orphaned cats. The Tank Stream, Sydney’s first source of drinking water, is now a drain covered by skyscrapers, and downstream from my little rainforest rivulet, in rural Australia though its location is, only gamblers and cattle drink the water. All this in just 200 years, in a country of not much more than 20 million people, and wealthy by most accounts. Though my road trip sometimes looked like a ride through a post-holocaust society, it is not wise to be overly sanctimonious in judging the pollution besetting India’s populated landscape.