A few years ago, British MP Lucy Ivimy had created a furore with her ‘Indians are congenital litterbugs’ remark. Though she later apologised, a mere glance at our unkempt streets is enough to prove she was not too off the mark.We don’t mind dirtying spaces that belong to others. We also let our children think it is okay to litter the neighbour’s compound or urinate at a street corner. And we always somehow look to get away. Environmental sociologist Amita Baviskar terms this kind of attitude as ‘out of sight, out of mind’. "As long we get garbage out of our homes and neighbourhoods, we don’t care where it ends up and who deals with it. So even though we’re running out of options for disposal and recycling, we carry on regardless," she says.
There is no sense of ownership of public spaces. Spitting in public is a favourite pastime and dustbins are stolen. Ravi Agarwal of civil society group Toxics Link says, “We seem to be uncaring as a community about others and about common space. So while we will not litter our own house, we do not think twice about littering outside. Also we equate waste to scavenging and caste, rather than as a responsibility.”
It’s not difficult to find people taking pride in escaping the fine, or hoping to get away. This starts from a very young age, feels author and conservationist Ananda Banerjee. “Many parents think boys ought to be naughty. This sows the seed of what all is wrong in society,” he says.
Baviskar says it’s time we take take responsibility for the waste we generate. “Some cities abroad make citizens pay for the quantity of garbage they give to the municipality. This ‘polluter pays’ principle encourages people to reduce, recycle and compost,” she says.
Another strategy is to include the cost of waste disposal in the price of products. “Though this may not discourage overconsumption, it at least ensures that some environmental costs are accounted for,” she says.
Agarwal says other cities, especially those overseas, demonstrate better community behaviour and follow laws better. “We have scant respect for laws and procedures,” he says.
According to Banerjee, only strict enforcement of fines and punishment is the way out. “We have enough laws but poor enforcement has added to the problem.” “We boast in international forums about our ancient culture and heritage but our civic sense doesn’t reflect that in any way. The same people when they travel abroad stick to rules, regulations and do not litter public places,” he says.There is also breakdown of infrastructure. A homeless man defecates in the open because there is no toilet available. Migrants live in inhuman conditions and cannot be blamed for unhygienic habits.
“The long-term answer to waste is to cultivate a mindset where people see themselves as citizens — of the city and the region and the planet — and are not content to transfer the costs of their consumption to other people and environments,” says Baviskar.