Of Brooms and Sweepers


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: India doesn’t lack sweepers, but has too many people throwing garbage everywhere.

And that was true even before the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was started, the big Indian cleanliness campaign. Since the inauguration on October 2nd, everyone who loves a good picture took a broom in his hand, asked some helpers to drop rubbish on the floor, and swung the stick till the photographer was done clicking.

The Prime Minister himself, Narendra Modi, swept the road. And so did the Heavy Industries Minister, the Civil Aviation Minister, the Minister for Science and Technology, the Minister for Minorities, and so on, and so forth. If that weren’t enough: Every single government office had, by order from the top, to administer a cleanliness pledge.

In fact, thousands of central and state government officials were forced to come to their workplaces for the start of the campaign. And that was, thanks to the Prime Minister, on a national holiday. So no long weekend for all of them.

Needless to say, many people doubt the campaign can be successful. Twitter was full of comments on “Muggle Quidditch” and the appeal to better sweep away corruption. My most favorite comment on the whole thing comes from the political psychologist Ashis Nandy. In an interview with the news website scroll.in, he said about Modi:

“[H]e believes in controlled democracy and wants the world to know India by cities which are spic-and-span. Image is very important to him, that we shouldn’t be considered second-rate by the white-skin or the yellow-skin ones.”

And further: “But some good will come out of this campaign. Government offices are excruciatingly dirty. It is not because they don’t have money. Habits are dirty. People have not learned to look for cleanliness outside their homes. They will pee on the wall. Cleanliness in the public place is not what is understood.”

Why Delhi can’t use its sweeping vans

A man stood in the middle of the road, a shovel in his hand. He worked on a new lane, which was a little darker than the rest of the tarmac. Repeatedly, he walked up to a heap of a mix of tar and pebble, put something on his shovel, walked back, threw it on the ground, and tried to level it out. No roller, weighing tons, to solidify the sticky mass, no level, for a smooth surface, no measurements.

flyover in front of my colony

Since then, the ride over the flyover in front of my colony is even more bumpy than it already was. In fact, Delhi’s roads are so potholed that according to this article, the municipal corporations had to take their mechanical sweepers off the roads.

28 of these big vans were bought into the ciy only three years ago, but the machines, developed in Germany, didn’t work in India: the tarmac is too uneven, many parts of the roads constantly dug up, cars parked everywhere, heaps of sand and bricks for construction sides, and so on. Also the garbage dumps on footpaths, which appear everywhere in the city, were not removed.

The result: After the high-tech sweepers went through a road, manual sweepers had to clean up behind them. Now the expensive machines were put to rest.

Not being taken seriously

Every sunday my favourite park, Lodhi Gardens, is littered in a nice, secluded area, where a large bench is running around a big tree. Polystyrene cups lie next to plastic plates, cutlery together with plastic bags and napkins with spoilt food. This can only mean one thing: A lot of people have breakfast there on the weekends.

Today morning I walked over to ask the huge group why they always leave such a mess behind. Why they can’t take home what they brought. Or at least walk the couple of meters to the next dustbin. If they don’t think the park belonged to everyone (we can hardly do our Parkour training at the spot after they leave).

Before I hadn’t even finished asking all these questions, the big, bearded man with the scoop in his hand and the bowl in front of him started replying. But instead of speaking to me, he addressed Siddharth next to me, who hadn’t said a word before, but had made a point in accompanying me for the confrontation. The other Parkour fellows looked from afar.

For the next couple of minutes, the bearded Sikh told Siddharth in an “I blow you away tone”, that the group hired a guy to clean up after them. He kept on emphasizing that the guy was well paid by receiving Rs 100. He then said they would be more strict with the garbage guy.

Not once during this self-righteous reply did he look at me. Not once did he make any gesture towards me. Not once did he pause so that Siddharth could translate. He didn’t even gave me a nod when Siddharth and I said goodbye.

Part of this might be due to the fact that he wasn’t well-versed in English and prefered to reply in Hindi, and this to the guy who looked more like he understood it. We don’t know, as he made no effort to speak any. But he perfectly understand what I was telling him in English.

I strongly believe it has more to do with the fact that I’m a girl and Siddharth a boy. A similar situation happened recently when I went to the cinema. It was a very posh one, so we could order during the movie. I rang the bell, I asked the waiter for a popcorn, I got the popcorn delivered – but then the bill was brought to the guy the friend sitting next to me.

Old habits die hard

The German embassy had invited to a get-together, because a German delegation was in town. As soon as the speeches were over, everybody bolted for the buffet, to load heaps of rice, roti, daal, and all kind of curries onto their plate, then went back for a second filling  of salad, bratkartoffeln and kässpätzle.

broken plateWhen the feast was over, not enough waiters were around to immediately collect the plates out of the hands of all guests. So I saw an Indian man do what an Indian man does: He threw his plate underneath the next tree. Bad luck he had forgotten that this time it wasn’t made out of paper of plastic, but porcelain.


Fighting against the air pollution

Delhi’s air is among the worst in the world. As I’m already living here for a year and a half, it is about time to act and protect my health.

If I don’t, I might end up having a reduced lung capacity and die years earlier than I otherwise would, as several studies, inter alia by the World Health Organisation (WHO), show. My most favorite headline about the issue was in today’s India Today: “Children in Delhi have lungs of chain-smokers!”

bad airIn my office in Chanakyapuri, one of the greenest areas in Delhi and just next to the ridge, the huge forest that runs through the western part of the city, the measurement wasn’t encouraging at all.

Regarding the particulate matter PM2,5  (particles with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2,5µm), the device showed a  176,2  µg/m³. The WHO recommends an annual mean of  10 µg/m³.

As for PM10 we measured 275,7 µg/m³, here the WHO recommends an annual mean of 20 µg/m³.  And the organisation explains: “Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.”

me and the air purifierAs I don’t want that to happen, if it can be prevented, I bought an air purifier. The neat machine is now running in my bedroom when I sleep and in the living room when I’m around. I can already feel the difference when I enter the room.

Hopefully the air purifiers for my office arrive soon. Then I should breathe good air for two thirds of the day – and therefore can compensate my additional breathing when I go for a run in the morning and cycle around the city.

Delhi’s most beautiful park

and what it looks like after a weekend of picnics

and what it looks like after a weekend of picnics

Is Delhi the most polluted city in the world?

air quality boardEvery morning, I ride my bicycle along the digital display in front of Mausam Bhawan, the Meteorological Department at Lodhi Road. In the winter month, I very often only see one colour there: red. Which means that the air quality is very, very bad, unhealthy, and, in fact, beyond measurement.

So far, not many people are concerned about that in Delhi. In fact, the choking hazyness is mostly referred to as “fog” instead of “smog”, which it actually is.

After the Hindustan Times ran a front-page report , which said Delhi is now the most polluted city in the world, and had actually surpassed Bejing, that previously was regarded to hold this doubious honour, the Indian media finally woke up.

But: Only the media. I haven’t heard of anybody buying a mask now or purchasing an air purifier (well, I might buy one pretty soon for me as well as the office). And the official reaction was – instead of banning cars from the road or slashing out fines on polluting industries or trying to step up electricity supply, so that the poor don’t have to burn waste in the streets to warm themselves and the rich don’t use their diesel generators – so instead of thinking of any logic measure, politics is in a status of denial.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences issued a statement, saying that “unusual meteorological conditions are playing a pivotal role in increased frequency of extreme pollution events dominated by fine particulates”. So, basically, “cooler temperatures” and “calm winds” are to blame.

Then the ministry goes on talking about the “fact” that levels of the very dangerous pollutants with less than 2.5 microns in diameter — scientifically called PM 2.5 — are much lower in Delhi than in Beijing. (These tiny beasts are able to get into the blood and are therefore considered being especially harmful and causing cancer.)

But are the levels really lower?

When I looked up the measurements of the US embassy in Beijing and compared them to the ones from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee at Punjabi Bagh, I found there were more days with a PM2.5 level above 301 (“hazardous”, according to the US embassy) in the Indian capital than in the Chinese city.

By the way, the embassy’s advise at this level is: “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” Well, I ride my bicycle…

For that I got scolded by researcher and activist Kamal Meattle, who grows his own fresh air. Really. After being told by his doctors that Delhi’s air will kill him some 20 years ago, he started experimenting. And found out that a combination of three common plants in a house or office building lead to measurably cleaner indoor air.

Nowadays, at his Paharpur Business Centre, all air is sucked in at the top, then water filtered, enriched by the plants, further cleaned, and then pumped into the different levels of the building – which is under permanent overpressure, so that no bad Delhi air is coming in through small gaps.

He claims, and I believe him after inhaling the good air in the building, that people inside have less eye irritations, breathing problems, headachse and in fact actually work more efficiently. (Here is his TED video.)

But back to the pollution levels outside.

Smog over Ring Road

In a study by Yale university India lands on rank 174 of 178 countries in terms of air quality. Looking more into detail, in the category “Air Pollution – Average Exposure to PM2.5”, India slips to rank 177. Guess who is 178? Right: China.

The new government under the “common man party” doesn’t seem to be looking into the problem. And so there might be more denial to come. Last year’s infamous words of the then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit still ring in my ears, when she told “The Hindu” the real reason for the smog: “And we discovered that much of the smoke which is hanging over Delhi is actually due to burning of rice stalks in the paddy fields in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. It is as if it is deliberately being done to choke Delhi.’’

Art in the Park

Independence Day Celebrations

“My dear fellow-citizens, brothers, sisters and dear children”, Prime Miinister Manmohan Singh greeted me as soon as I came in at the door from my morning run. The live stream was running, and from the beautifully decorated Red Fort the leader of the nation addressed the people.

“I greet you all on this Independence Day”, he went on. In his 40 minute speech, he explained some history, bemoaned the victims of the floods in Uttarakhand and the submarine tragedy, said something about the economy, praised his legislation,  touched the tricky topics Pakistan and women in India, and then he cheered together with the rest of the nation: “Jai Hind, Jai Hind, Jai Hind”.

independence day decoration

By the way, only when I saw this decoration, I realised my bicycle nearly sports the colours of India’s national flag. Coincidence?

More and more people from the neighbourhood arrived to celebrate the nation on its 67th birthday. Many wore their best clothes, greeted each other gracefully with folded hands, had a flower plugged in the hair or the turban especially nicely done.

“By getting here we all are showing a sense of unity and togetherness”, the former army chief J.J. Singh addressed the Club members.  And he encouraged the attentive listeners, to work even closer together, for example in putting up dustbins and using them, also to encourage children to not throw away their candy paper but to put it in the pocket until a dustbin is there.

The audience didn’t seem to need a reminder, but Singh anyway talked about the “deep civilizational strength” in India: People are still, despite the western influence, eating their daal and sabzi instead of bread, wear their kurtas and saris instead of jeans and t-shirts, embrace their own music culture. Then the national flag was hoisted and the national anthem sung.

Living in a dirty developing country


maybe to blame: fruits (which I eat en masse every morning), washed with dirty water

Break bone fever Dengue, Salmonella infection, joint pain disease Chikungunya, camp fever Typhus, Yellow Fever, lung disease Tuberculosis and of course the ubiquitous Delli Belly — the list of nasty illnesses my colleagues have had here in India recently doesn’t seem to end.

Now I joined them. A doctor diagnosed Amoebic Dysentery, a bloody diarrhoea caused by Entamoeba histolytica, a  parasitic protozan (WHO). So I swallowed some Ornof pills (with the antibiotics Ofloxacin) and got fine again. Bad luck the disease came back three weeks later. So the doctor prescribed me the same drug all over again – and it worked.

Good thing that came out of it: I now know how easy it is to get blood, urine and stool tested in Delhi. Dr. Dangs Lab for example does it on the same day, and in the evening the results are online (password is printed on the receipt), so one doesn’t even have to go back there.

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