Tuesday, 19 July 2016

PUBLIC HEALTH AND THE CITY OF GOA



The piles of garbage across Goa remind me of an event in Goa’s history. Goa’s recorded history does provide us with instances that enable us to draw a parallel and see the disastrous effects of waste management when not checked properly and seriously. While my attempt in this essay will be to draw parallels with the past, it must also be stated that the problem of garbage management is a recent one associated with factors of rampant urbanization, large-scale use of non-biodegradable materials, and lapses on the part of the State.

After becoming the capital of the Portuguese Empire in Asia, the City of Goa or Velha Goa was ravaged by epidemics at least a couple of times. The fortunes of the City as a great entrepôt or a metropolis were impacted by these epidemics. The Goan scholar José Nicolau da Fonseca writing about the city in his book An Historical and Archæological Sketch of the City of Goa (1878) makes a mention of the devastating epidemic of 1570.

Along with the siege by Ali Adil Shah’s large army that led to food shortages, Fonseca argued that it were the unsanitary conditions then prevailing in the City that were responsible for the outbreak of an epidemic. “The city was in the first place surrounded by marshes and stagnant pools, emitting noxious exhalations, whilst little or no attention was paid to the hygienic conditions essential for the preservation of public health. The muddy banks of the river outside the city were generally covered with the detritus of animal and vegetable matter, which being exposed at low tide to the tropical sun underwent putrefaction, and thereby bred the germs of disease” (p. 150).

Moreover, Fonseca wrote that open defecation took place (with the permission of the Government) within the limits of the City, that there was a lack of access to potable drinking water (due to Governmental neglect), and that garbage littered on the main thoroughfares of the City so much so that “nobody was prevented from throwing any quantity of filth he chose into the streets” increased the devastation. Even before the epidemic, the dirty streets and lack of clean water had contributed to creating unhygienic living conditions.

If one drives around Goa, one is quite shocked (or not) to see piles of garbage dumped along the sides of roads. What is also alarming is the manner in which places close to habitation or water bodies are used as landfill sites. The garbage dumped at the Campal Parade ground in Panjim is a case in point. That garbage is dumped in an area that hosted exhibitions and events, or was an open space for the public is a shocking lapse on the part of the authorities, not to mention an acute health hazard. There are more examples in Panjim itself that enable us to see parallels with the conditions then prevailing in the City of Goa.

The area close to the new building of the Central Library at Patto is being used as a landfill for quite a number of years. Apart from a lack of planning or vision that the authorities and the city administration have displayed, there is also the danger of noxious gases poisoning scholars and general readers or fires causing permanent damage to an institution that houses some of the rarest books, newspapers, magazines, and manuscripts in Asia. Such a premier library should have had a prominent place as an institution symbolic of intellectual production in Goa and not enveloped by the stink and danger of garbage.

It is precisely such State apathy and a crisis of management that increases the danger to the lives of citizens and reduces the quality of life. Recently, O Heraldo reported that the newly operational Solid Waste Management plant in Saligao was functioning only up to half of its capacity. There were talks about transferring the garbage from Campal to the new plant in Saligao, but it is evident that bureaucratic insouciance and an attitude to pass the responsibility to some other department or individual would result in more garbage piling alongside roads and open spaces right in the middle of cities.

The case of the epidemic of 1570 and the rising problem of garbage management today seems to have striking similarities. For one, the then administration which had a duty of regulating and enforcing laws regarding public health had failed miserably. It can be argued that the present administration is also failing in a similar duty. Secondly, people then as today have no qualms in dumping garbage along the roads. There are also important differences in terms of technology and the manner in which it contributes to the generation and the disposal of waste. But it does appear that history is coming full circle. One may think if this is a case of ‘history repeating itself’ or if it is a case of cyclical history wherein things move from being good to bad and back to good again. For many would recall that public order and civic sense was prevailing in Goan towns and cities during the last few decades of Portuguese rule. Whatever may be the case, it cannot be denied that all of us are facing a major crisis of public health if the status quo in the functioning of public affairs is maintained. And perhaps thinking about such instances in the past might help us in being alert to problems of the present that are increasingly threatening us.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 July, 2016)

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