Civic cleanliness: It's not in our nature, we spit on the idea

  • Lalita Panicker, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 20, 2015 09:00 IST

It was meant to sweep away our ingrained inability to keep our surroundings clean. When the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan was launched, we saw of the spectacle of all manner of politicians and celebrities posing, broom in hand. Unfortunately, for some the spoiler came in the form of photos of MCD workers strewing garbage in front of them in order for them to daintily sweep it aside. But seeing the garbage piled up on roads, thanks to MCD workers not being paid recently, it is clear that the fervour with which we were planning to usher in a clean India has dimmed.

The prime minister’s intentions were laudable, what he probably did not reckon on is our innate propensity to litter. Personally, Indians are probably among the cleanest people in the world. Even those who don’t have homes can be seen bathing in the open, using water pumps. But the concept of civic cleanliness is just not in our nature. As long as our own homes are clean, we are oblivious of the garbage right outside our doors. It is easy to blame the poor for being dirty. They perhaps have no choice, or are not aware of hygiene. But I have often seen people in luxury cars roll down their windows and spit onto the roads or throw out food wrappers.

Just one look at the toilets at the international airport terminal in the capital will show you that those with means are not above making a mess of common facilities. On a good day, you will see perfectly well-dressed men stop their cars and urinate against the walls in our cities. Desperate attempts to put up images of gods and goddesses on walls have not really worked. People living in tony condominiums think nothing of their cleaners throwing either garbage or dirty water right off their balconies.

The Prime Minister rightly spoke of how he wanted to make small changes. How the small changes can make a big difference. Well, he certainly has his task cut out for him. At the risk of gross generalisation, we as a nation lack both civic sense and any desire to follow rules that could benefit the greater common good. This explains why we don’t give two hoots about garbage in our vicinity, even though it could breed viruses and bacteria, which are not going to exclusively affect everyone else but ourselves. A look at our public hospitals is enough to scare you off medical care for the rest of our life. Biomedical waste is thrown out into the open with ragpickers sifting through it with no protection. A while ago, a recycling racket of biomedical waste including used cotton wool and bandages was exposed but nothing has changed since then. The fact that disposable needles are used is of little comfort to patients if infected cotton and bandages end up back on the shelves as also syringes.

As for cleanliness in hospital wards, forget it. Even Kerala, one of the better states when it comes to public hygiene, has witnessed the sight of dogs wandering around maternity wards in public hospitals while pregnant women lay on makeshift beds on the ground. How far away that seems from the photo-op of celebrities posing prettily with the broom as an accessory. It is not lack of money, or even political will, it is simply that we don’t see any need to exert ourselves to observe the most basic of rules when it comes to keeping our surroundings clean or respecting the rights of our fellow citizens.

Gandhi once said that if all Indians spat at the same time, we could drown the world. Well, we certainly seem to have taken that to heart with spitting becoming something of a national pastime. The rustic charm of some of our leaders is seen in the way they aim a stream of paan spit into receptacles even as reporters dive for cover.

It is no secret that we yearn to be Singapore, in fact many a politico has promised us that they will convert their states into Singapores. This may be a laudable aim but I cannot see in a month of Mondays, anyone here obeying civic rules as the Singaporeans do. Now it may be argued that Singapore has draconian laws to enforce such cleanliness. It is not that we lack laws, it is that we are such exuberant spirits that we take great pride and joy in breaking them. Honestly, does someone have to threaten to throw you in the clink or fine you for you to know that it is not kosher to spit on the road?

At the moment, we are raising an almighty ruckus about food safety. No corporate has the right to palm off food items that don’t conform to safety standards, even if they may be comfort foods from one’s past. But, let us be honest, we are really not all that bothered about what we eat. The Chanel and Prada classes have no compunctions about eating from the gol gappa stand, grubby vendor and all with stray dogs sniffing around the vicinity. A visit to the salubrious surroundings of India Gate late at night will reveal the gracious lawns littered with ice cream wrappers and all sorts of refuse. Our motto seems to be that it is our birthright to litter and someone else will clean up after us.

It is a mindset that is proving very difficult to change. Of course, we are full of righteous indignation when criticism of our filthy ways comes from a foreigner. How dare he, we will rage, diss us after having lived in a manner he is not accustomed to in India. But, the snarky foreigner is not far off the mark, is he? The truth hurts.

It is just a question of sticking to good old-fashioned common sense. Public filth affects us all, it brings with it communicable disease, contaminated water and a host of other things that will devalue the quality of life. But will we change our ways? Or just spit on these suggestions?

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