A few years ago, British MP Lucy Ivimy created a furore with her remark that Indians don’t know how to dispose of their rubbish and are congenital litterbugs. Though she later apologised, one look at our unkempt streets makes it evident her comments were not too off the mark after all.
The general lack of cleanliness is out in the open for all to see in India. This is especially true of Mumbai, which was ranked the dirtiest in a survey of 40 global tourist cities conducted by a travel agency in 2012. So what gives us this dubious distinction?
Rajkumar Sharma, an activist who founded Chembur’s first advanced local management (ALM) group, blamed an inherent trait in Indians to limit the sense of hygiene to their houses. “We are clean people. Our homes are clean. Even the tiny shanties in poverty-stricken slums are clean. However, we don’t mind dirtying spaces belonging to other people,” he said.
Waste segregation may be a rather recent term, but the practice is hardly new to Indians, said Sharma. “In our homes, we segregate our things so well, and even keep different bins for different kinds of waste. But we forget this once we are outside.”
Jeetendra Gupta, a public infrastructure activist, said the inefficiency of the civic body apart, some habits peculiar to Indians make it quite difficult to maintain cleanliness. “Tobacco chewing is one of the major reasons why our public places are such an eyesore. Besides health problems, it is also a serious civic issue. And there seems to be no solution to prevent the filth arising out of it. Banning it completely is the only step,” he said.
Another reason, according to Gupta, is the rather unfortunate trend of aping solutions that do not work in India. “Our municipal corporation places fancy dustbins on the streets. But in a poor nation such as ours, they all get stolen. Everything that has a scrap value, however miniscule, gets stolen. We need to develop bins that do not have any scrap value at all. Why can’t we invest in innovations that suit our local needs?” he said.
Ground realities, he added, must also be taken into account when framing guidelines for the use of public spaces. “Our government has made available the facility of public toilets. While the modern and air-conditioned ones charge about Rs5 for the use, others charge Re1 or Rs2. For the affluent, this money may not matter, but for the poor, who struggle to make ends meet, every rupee counts. Why will they pay if they can defecate for free in the open? We must make such facilities free,” he said.
Shishir Joshi, CEO of think-tank Bombay First, said the city is so packed it is bursting at its seams. In such a scenario, residents are intimidated by the sheer size of the problems. “Except for some unrelenting activists, the residents lack the will to make a change. Also, we are a very sensitive society, which may be attributed to the co-existence of various communities. People think twice before pointing out somebody else’s lack of civic sense, fearing it might trigger tension,” he said.
Joshi said the punishment system being so lax, which lets the culprit go scot-free for offences such as littering, urinating in the open or spitting, has created little fear in residents. Sharma agreed. “We, in fact, take pride in escaping the fine. We feel we are either smart or privileged. This misplaced sense of power and influence is a major reason behind a strict implementation of laws,” he said.