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Team up and report offenders to prevent Delhi from becoming a mega bin

columns Updated: Sep 15, 2014 11:23 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times

The brooms will be out soon as Delhi goes into cleaning mode. Just a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech urged the citizens to be a part of the 'Swachh Bharat' campaign, the Centre last week instructed the Delhi government to launch a cleanliness-cum-beautification drive.

From cleaning roads, drains, toilets and parks, picking construction waste from the streets to removing encroachments and fixing streetlights, road signs and street furniture, Delhi's civic agencies will launch the Clean India Week starting September 25.

Let us hope the drive is more than a photo opportunity for our politicians and bureaucrats. It is not that citizens expect much from these sporadic, symbolic efforts to clean up the city. Delhi has long made its peace with littering and spitting.

Heaps of putrefying garbage is part of the urban landscape across the Capital. Finding a clean public toilet is like a treasure hunt. Abstract graffiti of beetle and tobacco juice are like public art, on display at the power corridors of the Lutyens' zone and the squalid slums in east Delhi.

Delhi has had many a tryst with civic makeovers, the last big one being in 2010 when we hosted the Commonwealth Games. The government promised us a generational leap in the city infrastructure, with trash-free roads, heavy fines for littering, 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 soon after. The waterless toilets have been shut down and men are back to urinating on walls. The stainless steel bins have been stolen and garbage is back where it traditionally belonged -- on the streets.

The white-washed walls of Connaught Place are now splattered with different shades of red. Clearly, temporary cleanliness drives or merely installing better facilities have not worked.

The challenge is to maintain the upgraded infrastructure, such as modern public toilets and sleek garbage bins, and to sustain efforts towards generating awareness and penalizing offenders.

According to an estimate, almost 10% of the garbage that is generated in Delhi ends up on its streets. Clearly, the street cleaners do not turn up for duty or barely do their job.

Litter fines are not a deterrent because they are too low and poorly enforced. The slums and poor neighbourhoods in Delhi are dirty because civic facilities are poor or non-existent in most of these areas.

But what explains the filth around malls and upscale markets and well-to-do neighbourhoods? One could blame the civic authorities for not cleaning up soon enough but what about the litter tossed out from moving cars?

As much as it is an enforcement issue, Delhi's cleanliness is also its citizen's responsibility. Just how many of us report or confront others who treat this city as a mega bin and open urinal? Nearly three decades ago, Texas, USA, started a campaign -- 'Don't Mess with Texas' - and asked its citizens to report litterers by sending their car registration number to the department of transportation.

The department located the address and sent the offenders a 'Don't mess with Texas' litterbag along with a letter reminding them to keep their trash off the roads. The campaign was credited with reducing litter on Texas highways by roughly 72% between 1986 and 1990 (The Story Behind the Legend, 2006).

Closer home and more recently, residents of Bengaluru have started following a do-it-yourself model. With their 'Kaam chaalu mooh bandh (start working, stop talking)' motto, the Ugly Indians — a group of anonymous volunteers who connect on Facebook — have been 'spot fixing' dirty sidewalks, paan-stained walls, open dumps and public loos in the Karnataka capital since 2010.

In their own words, they believe in "no activism, no lectures, no awareness drives, no moralising". 'Just go out and do it' is their stated mission.

The government's Clean Up campaign is a good opportunity for Delhiites who care about their surroundings to team up and raise a litter police of volunteers. To keep Delhi clean, let's ensure that the sporadic week-long drives continue round the year.