I recently learnt about a junior college-going boy who contracted dengue fever and later passed away. His father was simply inconsolable. As a fellow parent I was shocked at the tragic loss of a precious, young child. When my children go to sleep, every night I adjust the mosquito nets on their beds so that mosquitoes cannot come in. Every parent can understand my anxiety.
In the past three months, there have been more than 75 reported cases of dengue fever across AP. The symptoms of this mosquito-borne disease include high fever, severe headaches and body pains. Death could follow. Newspapers reported that in 1996, Delhi alone saw 423 people dead and over 10,000 people affected in a dengue epidemic. There is no known treatment against this disease; victims are medicated only for their symptoms. Nor is any preventive vaccine available.
The best-known way to check the spread of dengue is to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the first place. This implies clean and hygienic surroundings in our towns and cities. But, take any city and we will find untreated wastewater and solid wastes being dumped into the open water bodies or landfills. India Development Report 2002 states that Hyderabad alone generates 373 million litres/ day (mld) of wastewater; less than half is treated. Hyderabad’s open nalas and drains have become perfect nurseries for mosquitoes and microbes; the word ‘Musi’ is now synonymous with a stinking mess! That is why we see regular outbreaks of not just dengue but also malaria and gastro-enteritis.
Outdated and bad governance system is the biggest hurdle on our path towards a cleaner, healthier India. It permits the illegal use of valuable public resources for private gain (‘corruption’) and promotes inefficient use of the available resources. Over a period of time, such a system has a more intangible and harmful effect of magnifying the apparent complexity of public problems. Let me illustrate:
Even in ‘happening’ cities like Hyderabad, more than half of the households (nearly 4 lakhs) do not have proper toilets. We urgently need about 140 million toilets throughout our country. Building them would cost us nearly Rs. 35,000 crores. It is not a tiny sum of money, but India is not a poor country either. All the governments combined, spend Rs. 1800 crores on our behalf - in a single day! If only our governments decide to invest 20 days of this public expenditure, we can easily build a toilet for every family in India.
Essentially, this is not a technically challenging or costly problem. We Indians have successfully solved far more complex problems like putting the world’s best communication satellites in space. Why cannot we have a toilet for every house, a clean Musi and mosquito-free Hyderabad? All the authorities need to do is work towards:
- Generating and sustaining public interest on such civic issues.
- Achieving consensus among the decision-makers (I agree this could be a little difficult but it certainly is not impossible).
- Promoting the most effective use of available resources.
Even small steps in the right direction could have a significant impact. For example, in Delhi, the municipal by-laws make the creation of mosquitogenic-favourable conditions a punishable offence. Some erring government officials were even prosecuted by the Delhi Government a few months ago under these provisions of the law. This simple step serves to increase the accountability of civic health officials.
The United States of America probably has its largest ‘fan following’ in India. We all have seen fellow-Indians who are proud patriots, but if given a choice, would stay in the USA. Why is that? Mostly because Americans have such good roads, cars, buildings and of course, excellent public sanitation.
We should be more concerned about another USA: Urgent Sanitation for All. Universal sanitation is one of the most pressing needs of our country. Also, better sanitation facilities at the household level should be supplemented by improved sewage treatment facilities at the city or town level. These two steps, together with larval control, will greatly contribute in combating the growth of mosquitoes and harmful microbes. In turn, this would lead to a reduction the frequency and geographical spread of outbreaks like malaria, cholera, gastro or dengue.
Unless India provides basic sanitation facilities to Indians, it cannot even think about becoming a global power in the 21st century. A cleaner India comes before a ‘world leader India’.