Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Great Stink vs. Great Rebellion

WaterAid keeps posting little YouTube videos all the time:

When the video begins, a dapper-looking gentleman in a top hat hacks into his handkerchief. Next to him, a grungy rat scampers along the railing. Flies buzz while morose piano music plays in the background. “London, 1858,” the narrator begins. “Death and disease stalked the Thames.” The Grim Reaper rows across a tarry-looking Thames under an ashy sky. “Raw sewage was dumped straight into the river, which became a brown sludge. And the smell was terrible. The Great Stink forced Members of Parliament to act. Effective sanitation meant that disease was massively reduced, health was improved, and countless lives were saved.” The sky clears, the Thames becomes a translucent blue, and a flock of birds flies in front of a charmingly sparkling Parliament building. Now we see similarly rosy pictures of Tokyo and Paris as the narrator tells us that they went through their own clean-ups.
Then, we see a picture of a slum—leaning shanties with tattered cloth doors, open sewers of scum, a child balanced on a precarious bridge on his way to a ramshackle latrine. Vaguely tribal music begins. The sound of flies returns. “Yes, 150 years since the Great Stink, in the developing world, billions of people are living and dying in the kind of squalor that was eradicated long ago in the rich world. 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation, and over 1 billion lack access to clean water.” There is a crisis in sanitation, he says, that threatens to undermine all development efforts. “The stink goes on!”
WaterAid’s video takes a high-handed stance on sanitation: Europe figured out sanitation management over 150 years ago, the video claims; the developing world is “behind” and continues to live in its own stench. If you donate to WaterAid, you can help the developing world “catch up” and achieve the sanitation nirvana experienced by the developed world.
This is the video that launched one of my term papers which ended up being a 46-page behemoth (if you want a copy, feel free to ask). I try to ask: well, why didn’t other major cities develop a sanitation system at the same time? To focus, I looked at Delhi, one of the major cities of Britain’s colony at the time, India.
So what was going on in India?

In 1857, the British, in the form of the East India Trading Company, had been in India for over 200 years. Relations between the Indians and the British were strained to the limit. All that was needed was a single spark to ignite the country. The spark came.
In the spring of 1857, a rumor spread amongst the Indian soldiers near Delhi that the ammunition casings for the new rifles they were using had both pork and beef fat in them, meaning that using them was a blasphemy in both Hinduism and Islam. A group of soldiers refused to use the guns; they were punished; their friends rebelled; and this started a rebellion that swept across the entire country. The British struggled to regain control over their economic resource, and the Indians struggled to regain control over their lives and their country.
British political cartoon, 1857 (source)

Thousands of Britons and Indians died—men, women, and children. But the biggest killer of Britons in the Rebellion? Cholera, which, only two years before, was discovered to be from human waste travelling in water, but even earlier, was already associated with the subcontinent. The Rebellion was fragmented and disorganized, and eventually, the British reconquered the territory and kept a greater hold on it than before. Delhi was razed almost to the ground in order to assert the power of the British over what was historically the Mughal capitol.
Jantar Mantar, 1857 (source)

 The city went through a massive period of rebuilding at almost the exact time that London was afflicted by the Great Stink of the video, but while London got one of the most impressive sewage systems ever built, Delhi made do with a hodge podge of manual labor, open drains, tanks, and haphazard river dumping.
So there were periods of urban reconstruction in both cities. There was an opportunity to rebuild Delhi with sanitation. So why not? This is going to be me trying to summarize 40 pages into a few bullet points, but here goes:

·        The British thought they could “seal” the Indians and protect themselves by segregating them into a different part of the city. Even their sanitation systems were kept separate sometimes. If they could protect themselves from the Indians and their body products, they could keep themselves safer. The British could, effectively, isolate themselves making Indian sanitation “not their problem.” (This is exactly what happens today around the world, by the way.)
·        The British believed that Indians wouldn’t “like” water closets; that it would be too strange and new to them. There was a strong belief that Indians were backwards, primitive, and dirty, and British policies that prevented Indians from building latrines (for example, the public nuisance laws of 1862) or institutionalized the use of manual scavengers as the main means of waste disposal in an area helped to perpetuate that.
·        Using manual labor was cheaper, and the British were never ones to invest in any projects that did not protect their interests. The British sewer system, which took 17 years to complete, cost 6.5 million pounds.
·        Because the British believed that they, and all things they created, were better than the Indians, they believed that water sewage systems (like we have today) were the best option. However, Delhi is, more or less, in a desert. Water is not a good option, and because of the way the way that everyone has bought into the superiority of western/waterborne technologies, alternatives were never really given a chance to flourish.
·        The knowledge that human fecal matter spreads disease was still not popular yet. (It wouldn’t be widely accepted by the scientific community until Robert Koch isolated the cholera bacteria in 1883.) Most people still thought that odors spread disease. If you can’t smell the problem, it’s not a problem.
·        There is a simple matter of who has power to change things and who was affected. In London, Parliament was right next to the Thames. During the Great Stink, they literally couldn’t work because of the stench. During the Great Rebellion? The people who had the power to authorize construction of sanitation were far away from the problem—on a different continent, sometimes.
 There are other reasons and subtleties, but these are some of the main themes.
So what's my main point? That it is unfair to make it sound like developing countries are stuck in the 19th century, that they “failed” to develop like the US and Europe did. In many cases, their lack of sanitation is a direct consquence of colonial influence. (India, historically, has had sewage systems in many of their cities: the site of Mohenjo-Daro boasts the first waste water system known, and Mughal Delhi had a relatively sophisticated set of drains.) Instead of thinking of issues like sanitation as if nations were somehow isolated unto themselves, we need to shift our thinking: they do not have a problem, we—as citizens of the world system—have a sanitation problem that we are historically and collectively responsible to fix.

Let’s shift our thinking—and our rhetoric—accordingly.   

For more information and some of the sources, check out Mann’s article and Vijay Prashad’s. For a full bibliography, please e-mail me; it contains 40+ sources that I don’t have time to add here.

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