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The Tenth B.G. Kumar Lecture

The Tenth B.G. Kumar Lecture on “Swachh Bharat? Swachh World? Garbage and Pollution on a Growing Planet”  was delivered by Professor Robin Jeffrey, Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, at the Baker Auditorium, CDS on September 4, 2019.

Prof Sunil Mani, Director, welcomed the audience to the Tenth BG Kumar Lecture. He pointed out that the lectures were made possible by the very generous contribution from BG Kumar’s family. He also mentioned that BG Kumar was one of those promising independent-minded economists who was an Associate Fellow at the CDS for a period of three years during 1990-93. He also extended a warm welcome to the family members of B G Kumar who was present.

Professor Mani then introduced Prof Robin Jaffrey who is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore. His most recent book, co-authored with Assa Doron, is Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India was published by Harvard University Press, in 2018). He and Doron published The Great Indian Phone Book in 2013. Jeffrey is the author of India’s Newspaper Revolution (2000),  Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala Became ‘a Model’  (1992) What’s Happening to India? (1986) and The Decline of Nair Dominance (1976). Prof. Mani mentioned that Prof Robin has lived in India for about six years at different times, particularly in Kerala. Prof.  Mani also thanked him for the generous collection of personal books on India and Kerala which he had donated to the Dr. K N Raj Library and which will be kept in a separate section as “ Prof Robin Jeffrey Collection” of the library.

Before starting the lecture, Prof Jeffrey recalled his association with Prof K N Raj and CDS from the seventies onwards. He said that it was five years since the inaugurated the Swachh Bharat campaign to create a Clean India. Since then, China’s ban in 2016 on the import of waste paper and plastic has shaken governments around the world out of complacency about how they manage waste. Dumpsites overflow. Paper and plastic, accumulated for “trouble-free recycling in China,” have nowhere to go except a landfill. Or they catch fire.

Swachh Bharat is an unprecedented example of a relentless national program driven from the highest levels of government. But India’s struggles with waste, pollution and public sanitation are long-standing, engaging the efforts of world figures such as Florence Nightingale and Gandhiji himself. The development of biogas, now celebrated as an important weapon in the war for cleanliness, was pioneered in the Leprosy Asylum in Mumbai in the 1890s.

Today, India is not alone in its quest for improved, sustainable public sanitation. The planet’s seven billion people, increasingly attracted into cities, relish the throw-away delights that go with consumer capitalism.

Drawing on examples from India and elsewhere, the lecture explored the things we dispose of, the threats they pose to public health and attempts from around the world to minimize waste and the harm it causes.

The lecture was followed by an interactive session with the audience.