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Can’t raise a stink in India’s litter Capital

columns Updated: Jul 29, 2013 02:50 IST

In my gated community, we pay a hefty monthly maintenance fee, much of which goes into keeping the common areas spick-and-span. The floors are regularly scrubbed, elevators are serviced in time, and the lawns look green and manicured round the year. The only eyesores are the walls smeared with the gutka and paan stains.

Polite requests and stern warnings have failed to control serial offenders from leaving their spittle trail on the walls of an otherwise well-kept building. Caught in action, a resident laughed it off, claiming it was an “Indian thing to do”.

He was not wrong. Sprays of beetle and tobacco juice adorn urban landscapes across India. In Delhi, the paan stains are like public art, on display at the power corridors of the Lutyens’ zone and the squalid slums in east Delhi. Kolkata’s iconic Howrah Bridge is losing its protective metal casing to the acids contained in paan. Mumbai is planning to get a deep purple exterior paint for its suburban trains to camouflage spittle trails.

Indians have carried this civic art even to London. Three years back, Brent, a north-west London council that houses a huge South Asian immigrant population, started cracking down on people spitting paan on pavements. The stains were so stubborn that even special teams using high powered water jets were unable to totally remove them, the BBC reported in 2010. So, the council decided to spend £17,000 on an education campaign by plastering the neighbourhood with posters that read: “It’s Nasty Man: Don’t Spit Paan”.

Recently, Enfield, another London borough, moved a proposal to make spitting a criminal offence that got approval from the secretary of state. If passed after consultation, people caught spitting would be issued with a fixed penalty notice and anyone refusing to pay could face prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000.

Delhi, of course, has long made its peace with littering and stains. In 2008, Forbes magazine rated our capital as the world’s 24th dirtiest city. That was the time when Delhi was promised a civic makeover for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The government promised us a generational leap in the city infrastructure, with trash-free roads, heavy fines for littering, 1,000 waterless toilets, and awareness campaigns such as Dilli ki beti, urging people to stop spitting, urinating and throwing garbage in public spaces.

But the “world-class” sheen started waning almost as soon as the athletes left. The waterless toilets have been shut down and people are back to urinating on walls. The stainless steel bins have been stolen and garbage is back where it traditionally belonged. The white-washed walls of Connaught Place are now splattered with different shades of maroon. Dilli ki beti has disappeared from the hoardings and there is no one to tell our callous residents that spitting and urinating in public places is gross and throwing trash out of the car window shameful.

Two of the three civic corporations that the MCD was trifurcated into, have together raised approximately Rs 3 crore in fines from residents for littering. But these were fines imposed on establishments — shops, roadside eateries, small factories and residents dumping garbage and construction waste in bulk. There are no provisions to enforce spot fines for individuals littering, spitting or taking a leak in public places.

The Bill to increase such spot fines from Rs 50 to Rs 500 has been pending for years. With just one Assembly session left before Delhi goes to polls, it is unlikely to be passed before the Congress seeks its fourth consecutive tenure. Increasing penalties is always bad politics. Really, why bother when the majority is happy turning their city into a giant bin and an open toilet.