December 9, 2022

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Sifting through the muck: Inequity and Clean Cities

Indore was named the cleanest city for the fifth year in a row, followed by Surat and Vijayawada, in what has become a predictable pattern in the annual 'Swachh Survekshan' awards.

Indore was named the cleanest city for the fifth year in a row, followed by Surat and Vijayawada, in what has become a predictable pattern in the annual ‘Swachh Survekshan’ awards. For the third year in a row, Chhattisgarh was named the cleanest state in the category of “States with more than 100 urban local bodies.” Varanasi, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was named the cleanest ‘Ganga city.’ The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, which organised the event, surveyed 4,320 cities for over a month and received responses from 4.2 crore individuals. Garbage disposal, open defecation-free ratings, community toilet operation and maintenance, and safe faecal sludge management were the metrics (cities). The ‘Survekshan’ awards contain a variety of categories that categorise cities according to their population. While they strive to portray the diversity of urban agglomerations on the one hand, it is difficult to avoid criticism: every State has at least a few participants who will place first in one or more categories, making the process a huge appeasement scheme. Along with categories like ‘States with over 100 urban local bodies (ULB),’ where Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh came in second and third, respectively, there was also a top ranker for ‘States with less than 100 ULBs,’ where Jharkhand came out on top. Then there existed a ‘Ganga’ city category, as well as population-based ones. Indore, Surat, Navi Mumbai, New Delhi Municipal Council, and Tirupati were all designated as ‘divya’ this year in a novel ‘Prerak Daaur Samman’ (platinum). They were evaluated in terms of solid waste management. These were, unsurprisingly, companies that had previously ranked first in other categories.

Rankings serve two purposes: they provide attention and recognition for the other victors, as well as motivation to move up the totem pole. Despite the fact that the number of cities polled has expanded since the survey’s inaugural edition in 2016, it appears that the same cities — Indore and Surat, for example — continue to top the list. Six years is a fair period to evaluate what the ranking programme aims to accomplish: is it inspiring cities to devote considerable money to sanitation? Is it true that cleaner cities are cleaner because they have better access to state finances and hence can pull away from other cities? Do states concentrate their efforts and resources on keeping some cities clean in order to gain a ranking in one of the many categories? When a complicated statistic like sanitation and cleanliness is reduced to simple ranks, it can lead to a misleading sense of progress. More qualitative study should be conducted at both the regional and national levels to determine whether India’s cities are becoming cleaner in aggregate or if numbers are masking inequalities.

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