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Mumbai’s Humboldt Penguins are victims of Indians’ penchant for being litter bugs

Visitors left behind a trail of litter in the Byculla Zoo’s new Humboldt Penguin enclosure, putting the birds at an increased risk of infection. Is littering a peculiarly Indian problem?

opinion Updated: Apr 20, 2017 14:11 IST
Vidya Subramanian
Vidya Subramanian
Hindustan Times
Humboldt Penguins,Byculla Zoo,Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
Visitors in the Byculla Zoo looking at Humboldt penguins kept in a 1500 square foot enclosure. (Prashant Waydande / Hindustan Times)

The one thing that unites us all, irrespective of caste, creed, colour, language, and gender, is the propensity to generate garbage. In some distant future (if the human race survives its genocidal tendencies), some sentient race from outer space that cannot communicate with us in language as we know it could be forgiven for thinking that the primary purpose of life on earth was to generate garbage. And if they, by some galactic roll of the dice, landed somewhere in urban India, they might even assume that the thing we display with most pride are our collections of trash.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has (for hitherto inexplicable reasons) brought a bunch of Humboldt Penguins, whose natural habitat is the South Pole side of South America (they get their name from the chilly Humboldt Current that runs north along the western coast of South America) to the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan (normally known as the Byculla Zoo). And as Mumbaikars thronged the air conditioned enclosure to see these exotic birds, they left behind a trail of litter that has now put the penguins at an increased risk of infection.

Let’s face it. Indians are champion litterers. Our roads are lined with discarded things that we have thrown out of our cars, buses, autos, pockets, purses, hands... and while we all celebrate our broom-wielding politicians in their abhiyaans and photo opportunities for a Swachh Bharat; we are strangely immune to the piles building up around us...until the municipality workers go on strike and the smell of garbage permeates our impeccably clean drawing rooms.

Douglas Adams, in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy invented what he called the ‘SEP Field’ or the Somebody Else’s Problem field. This field, he contends, when activated over anything – no matter how large or how inconvenient – renders it invisible to the human eye. Much like all the litter we have learned to live with and ignore, because it’s “not our job” to either clean it up or dissuade others from spreading it.

It’s not as though the government has not tried to do something about the problem of urban trash. About a year ago, the government had directed state governments to levy fines for littering, open defecation and public urination; because the awareness campaigns that were part of the Swachh Bharat Mission have failed to have the desired effect in urban areas. Littering or urinating in public places would attract penalties up to Rs. 5,000. The urban development ministry had asked states to impose penalties in all wards in as many as 15 cities by the end of 2016 and in all wards in all cities by September 30, 2018. Evidently, our valiant public urinators and litterers have not let government impositions such as fines deter them.

As we hurry past certain street corners with perfumed handkerchiefs pressed to our noses, pretending we have no idea what that awful smell is of; or roll down our car windows just enough to be able to drop that candy wrapper out on to the street; we do so with the confident knowledge that as citizens of this glorious country where cows are sacred and humans not so much, there will always be someone whose job it is to clean up after us. After all, we do put up with this inconvenience of sight and smell ourselves, don’t we?

Why then would anyone assume that these poor penguins would be spared our profusion of refuse? Did anyone say that these penguins that naturally exist in the largest ocean on the planet now they swim in a space that is about one-fortieth the size of an Olympic sized swimming pool; and the least we could do for them is give them a clean space to live in? Oh please! Everyone in Mumbai knows that there is no space in the city but a whole lot of rubbish.

Is it the peculiarly Indian propensity for spreading garbage that has now endangered the Humboldt penguins in the Byculla Zoo? Or are we just so arrogant that we believe it is our right to litter and to clean it up is somebody else’s problem?


First Published: Apr 20, 2017 13:00 IST