Before leaving for a holiday to Sri Lanka last month, I had imagined its cityscape to be similar to that of India’s.
Just how much could our South Asian neighbour be different from us? Our food and climate are similar. Our cultural and political affinities, including the British legacy, are strong. Many of Sri Lanka’s touristy snapshots — beaches, hills, spice and tea plantations and herds of elephants bathing in the river — could be easily confused with those from Goa or our southern states.
But Sri Lanka turned out to be a better, cleaner experience. Its beaches and water bodies were clean. The roadways had no potholes. The rail tracks and public toilets smelled different. Travelling over a 1,000 km in the island country, I didn’t see anyone urinating by the roadside or littering trash.
What struck me most was the level of cleanliness in Colombo and Kandy, two of Sri Lanka’s largest and most crowded cities. There were no mounds of putrefying garbage or overflowing drains typical of any Indian city.
One could argue that population pressures, poverty, illiteracy and infrastructure gaps bring the Indian cities down on the sanitation index. Delhi’s population is, after all, more than 20 times that of Colombo’s. Our slums and poor neighbourhoods are dirty because civic facilities are non-existent.
But what explains the filth around affluent Delhi’s neighbourhoods, malls and markets? What about the litter tossed out from apartment windows and moving cars? Lack of public toilet is a problem across Indian cities. But what about those who have access to toilets and still go on to defile city walls?
Clearly, our poor civic sense is a problem. It is not that Indians are unclean people. But our cleanliness is usually restricted to our personal space. Outside of it, we have long made peace with practices we wouldn’t allow at home.
It is convenient to assume that cleanliness is solely the municipality’s responsibility. But the government institutions are a reflection of its people. According to an estimate, at least 10% of the garbage that is generated in Delhi ends up on its streets. Unsurprisingly, the street cleaners do not take their job too seriously.
If the Sri Lankan cities seem to be more manageable because of their population size, perhaps Tokyo could provide a better comparative perspective for Delhi. The two cities are the world’s largest urban agglomerations. Like Indians, Japanese also lay importance on cleanliness and purity derived from their ancient religion, Shinto. But unlike us, they consider it a public issue, which has always been a strong component of governance.
In a paper on ‘Urban Sanitation in Pre-Industrial Japan’, American historian Susan B Hanley writes that during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) in Edo or future Tokyo, the pre-modern equivalents of the police box were set up at large intersections. They were used not only to keep an eye out for criminal activities but also to ensure that no water pipes were leaking and that the streets were clean.
Hanley quotes scholar Edward S Morse who visited Japan in the 19th century and found that though the narrow alleys of the city where the poor lived appeared squalid to the Japanese, “they were immaculate in comparison with unutterable filth and misery of similar quarters in nearly all the great cities of Christendom”.
In India, the issue of cleanliness seldom attracted the attention it deserves. Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat campaign and tried to bring it into public discourse. But most politicians, bureaucrats and municipal officials have interpreted it as a once-a-year photo opportunity. Citizens, so far, have remained mostly indifferent.
There are more examples to show that public cleanliness is not alien to the Asian culture. In 1968, Singapore launched what was to become a hugely successful cleanliness campaign. Today, the island country is among the best-run and cleanest city systems in the world.
In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, then president of Singapore: “Everybody can see the point of a neat home, clean kitchen, clean food and healthy children. But responsibility stops too often at the doorstep.” To make Swachh Bharat a reality, it’s time for each of us to take that small but critical step forward.
The author tweets as @shivaniss62 and could also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org