A Look at Infrastructure and Waste Management in Varanasi

As someone going into the field of environmental engineering, it’s impossible to overlook the lack of infrastructure here in Varanasi, India. Nita, one of the founders of NIRMAN schools, where we are staying, generalized the issue as being a result of engineers not trained in designing and building for the uncertainties of India. An example was workers right outside the Southpoint school rebuilding the sidewalk for the ‘umpteenth time,’ still with an uneven slope, bound to fail again in the near future. If they were to take the extra time today to level out the land, the sidewalk would last much longer, as it should. Walking the streets of this city, it appears that many things are done in this patchwork manner. Perhaps Nita is exactly right, that when engineers are educated abroad, their coursework is assuming that they are starting with a cleaner foundation, but the reality here in India is that the city’s surroundings are chaotic and disorganized. Gutters that should carry drainage downstream hold still water, accumulating the dust and garbage from the street above until what lines the road is a swampy, foul smelling moat. Men urinate publicly, against the wall or into these gutters. There is a lack of baseline sanitation standards. Furthermore, trash is littered everywhere. The photo I’ve attached shows the bank of a river that has the potential of being a serene haven from the chaos of the bustling city streets, but instead parallels a landfill. Even I, having been here a week, have a plastic bag in my luggage that I collect trash in, for it is often hard to find garbage cans about. The dumpsters that I have seen are either already overflowing, or ignored and the trash rather scattered next to them as they remain empty. Therefore various wrappers and cans line the streets, gradually becoming covered in dust until they blend into the road itself. I keep thinking that if items were wrapped in compostable materials, these really would disintegrate over time and add to the natural organic matter, but they aren’t and so the plastic and metal will remain. Being Americans, we are unused to this level of litter and at first, it is quite shocking. The worst part that I’ve seen, is citizens piling up the plastic, taking a burning candle, and lighting the pile on fire. This inevitably releases harsh chemicals into the air that not only negatively affect the lungs of others walking the street but also contribute to the larger problem of polluting the air and emitting greenhouse gases. To these people, burning the trash puts it out of sight and out of mind, leaving their homes garbage free, but education must be provided to teach the horrible effects that doing this routinely can impose on both the environment and human health. Those gutters that I mentioned, drain directly into the Ganges river, as does wastewater from homes, including raw sewage. There are two wastewater treatment plants near the river, but these do not process nearly all of the waste and problems arise when monsoons cause the streets to flood and the plants to cease their treatment. I know that this problem in infrastructure stems from something deeper than just a lack of personal respect for the environment. Political corruption leading to shortage in funds for projects, and a 30% illiteracy rate both contribute. Still, management of all of this waste should be prioritized in cities like Varanasi that are vibrant in the arts and culture, so that they are no longer dulled and de-romanticized by the ill sight of piles of garbage, crumbling streets, and improper facilities for processing waste.

Written by Victoria Mount

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