Metro Matters: World cities struggle with paan spitters, let Delhi show the way
In Delhi, paan and gutkha stains are like public art. You can see the spittle trails on the exteriors of stately government buildings, the snow white walls of Connaught Place, the boundaries of expensive hotels and even in car parksdelhi Updated: Sep 22, 2017 12:31 IST
The virtues of the famous Banarasi paan were extolled by actor Amitabh Bachchan in a hit song from his 1978 film Don. But 39 years later, the administration of Varanasi is worried that its spittle is ruining ancient cityscape.
The municipality plans to fine people up to Rs 500 for each paan spit and Rs 100 for littering public space with wrappers. If they succeed, they will achieve a feat that the strictest civic agencies across the world had failed to.
Sprays of betel and tobacco juice embellish urban landscapes across India. Catch a spitter in action and the pet refrain will be how it is the most Indian thing to do.
In the national capital, the paan and gutkha stains are like public art. You can see the spittle trails on the exteriors of stately government buildings, the snow white walls of Connaught Place, railings of elevated roads and flyovers, the boundaries of expensive hotels and even in car parks.
The Kolkata Port Trust has been complaining about how the city’s iconic Howrah Bridge that it maintains has lost half its protective metal casing to the acids contained in paan. Last year, the central and western railways declared that they were spending Rs 3 crore a month to scrub paan stains out of Mumbai’s local trains.
We have also carried the tradition abroad. Brent, a London council that is home to a large south Asian immigrant population, started cracking down on people spitting paan on pavements in 2010. The stains were so stubborn, wrote the BBC, that even special teams using high powered water jets were unable to totally remove them.
So the authorities plastered the neighbourhood with posters saying: “It’s Nasty Man: Don’t Spit Paan”. Spending as much as £20,000 every year to clean the smears, the council has since last year also started penalising violators with a fine of £80.
The reddish-brown splotches on the sidewalks of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, have disgusted the authorities and the local press alike. Last year, the municipality of Abu Dhabi issued fines of 1,000 Dirham each to 180 people spitting out betel juice on the streets and walls of the capital city of the United Arab Emirates.
In Indian cities, where authorities are preoccupied with piles of garbage killing bystanders or open manholes sucking in pedestrians, fighting littering or spitting is not even considered a civic priority. But last year, Union health minister JP Nadda faced ire of his fellow MPs who demanded strict action spitting in public places.
The on and off awareness campaigns launched by the municipalities have done little to dissuade people from turning Delhi into an open spittoon. After a gap of seven years, billboards carrying a counter to Su Su Kumar and Thu Thu Kumar with new characters Mrs Saf Suthiri and Mr Swachh Kumar were recently reinstalled in Delhi.
Penalties can be a deterrent. But a fine as low as R 50 may not be enough. Officials of South Delhi Municipal Corporation say that they are pushing for a ten-fold increase under the bylaws for National Solid and Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016.
However hefty penalties need to be enforced to discourage spitting. For that, the municipalities will need more boots on the ground. A sanitation inspector and his deputy in each ward, who are supposed to monitor collection and transportation of city’s garbage to dumpsites and also enforce bans on the use of plastic bags and littering, already have their hands full.
Till five years ago, Delhi Metro had just one magistrate to impose fines for violations on its entire network. The administration then decided to grant the powers to one Metro personnel at each station to impose and collect on-spot fines. It probably made a difference. Today, metro stations are the cleanest and the best preserved public space in the national capital.
Metro officials say that, over the years, the number of fine for spitting has declined because people know they will be caught and made to pay up. Civic officials, however, argue that metro stations are closed spaces where laws are easily enforceable.
They are right as global experience shows it is never easy to fight paan spitters across the city. But are they up to the open challenge?