Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Bangkok Diary: Heart full of garbage

Bangkok, to my North-Eastern existence, is a very unreal place. It is the biggest city I have ever seen. Even if you consider the fact that till I was about 16, I had actually not seen a city and from then on have seen only a few, it still is a very big city. According to some scientific study there are more than 3700 7-11 stores in Bangkok. This automatically means that there are more than 3700 street corners in Bangkok. And that makes it a very big city.

The convenience of 7-11 aside, it is ranked as one of the best cities in the world by most travel magazines. Tom-Yam-Goong (famous spicy tangy flavourful Thai prawn soup) is a proof of this.

When I am not either looking up at the tall buildings or looking down into my Tom Yam bowl, the city has never ceased to surprise me. In a very pleasant way. Known as the food capital of the world, the city must have millions of eateries. Most of them on the streets. And yet there is no garbage lying on the street. How is that possible? I know, fellows back home will say, 'it is because we have too many people and we do not have garbage bins around'. Statistics say that Guwahati has an area of 264 sq km, with a population a little less than 1 million (968, 549) and its population density is  3649 people/ sq km. Bangkok has an area of little more than 1500 sq km with a population of around 9 million and a density of 5259 people/ sq km. It also receives more than 10 million tourists every year. Logistically speaking, which city should be easier to manage waste? No, it is not a matter of numbers. It is a matter of mentality.

In 2011 a bomb scare made the Bangkok authorities remove all the garbage cans from the city. The authority has not managed to bring them back yet. What I hear from reliable source (as in I have to completely rely on this source) that the bins are lying in some bin-yard near the city. They will be brought back someday. Just that they have not found the time!

Leaving the authorities to do their duty, what comes to my mind is a morning early this year in Guwahati. I land at the ISBT bus stand and decide to take a rickshaw instead of an auto so that I can enjoy the early morning fresh air. The astronomical fares the auto guys demanded made being healthy a cheaper option at that point. What however I was greeted by was piles and piles of garbage – dead animals, rotting food, flying plastic bags and a stench so strong it nearly pushed me out of the rickshaw. And this is not one site. Every few meters on the highway and in the city roads this was the scene. And this is not one day either. For those of us who live in Guwahati know it very well that we actually live in a garbage hole.

Coming back to Bangkok, it has been more than 6 months that the cans are resting in their yard. The city is still clean. Still there are no garbage flying from anyone’s frying pan or soup bowl. Not a grain of rice escape their chop sticks. How? What people have done is that they collect their garbage in their individual garbage cans/ bags through the day. As one bags fills out they tie it up properly and keep it at the back of their make shift store. At night, before going home, they pile up the packets in one place leave it for the garbage vans to pick it up.

What strikes is the sincerity with which people do their work. Chulalongkorn University gets its weekly cleaning every Saturday. I have noticed fervor in the people who do this job. They sweep, wash, prune, water and organize every corner of the campus. And it is a big campus for your information. They even clean the roof of the shades that cover the footpath. This is something I miss at home. If the Assamese people were already born slow (lahe lahe being their favourite excuse), with newer economic and political relationships they have learnt to turn not doing things into a form of expertise. Every person, who has some job to do, tries not to do it at all. It is only by some sheer probability of transaction cost that you will get them to do about 5% of the job. Of course very unhappily and asking for extra money very frequently. If we did not have the Bangladeshis, I wonder if we would get anything done in that place at all.

Talking about the Bangladeshis, one day walking around the city, I reach Sukumvit – the immigrants’ underbelly of Bangkok. There are streets full of signs in Benagli. I enter a ‘Muslim Food’ place to have beer. There I chat up the waiter and the manager in Bengali. They get really happy that I speak Bengali and extremely unhappy that I drink beer. And they tell me I look like a Nepali.

Talking about Nepal, that Bagmati river (?!) in Kathmandu is filthy. Unless they have cleaned it up in the last week (which they can if they want) it was filled with plastic packets filled with all kinds of garbage. The place looked like it was made of garbage filled plastic bags. It was stinky and abominable to go close to. We had to park the van next to it and walk across to get to Darbar Sqaure. It was stinky and not rememberable. If we do not stop now, Guwahati, Assam, North-East and other places in the world will soon turn out the same way.

It is sad that when I sit down anyplace I am in and think about home, all I can think about is garbage. I have nearly finished my term in the enemy boot camp.  Time to go back looms. All I can think about is not being able to walk around in Guwahati. I feel sad.