Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why are the Streets so Filthy in India?

I just came back from Sri Lanka after an enjoyable family trip.  As soon as I stepped out of the impressive, new Indira Gandhi Airport Terminal I was immediately struck by the contrast India presents to its visitors. Sri Lanka is obviously much smaller and probably considerably easier to manage that India ever will be.  But I have to be honest. My observations of Lanka gave me a clear impression that life is cleaner, safer, and more efficient there. And if these things are all true, Why?  Could it be just because Sri Lanka is smaller and less crowded?
I love living in India. But like any place you chose to live there are things you like and admire and some things that really bug you. For me it's the mess. Why are most of the streets here so filthy? After living here for nearly three years, I believe population and caste are probably the two biggest factors that contribute to the litter and garbage that is almost everywhere. 
In Sri Lanka the population (20 million) is only a fraction of India's (1.2 Billion). It's just not much of an issue there. But over-population obviously fuels India's ongoing struggles with infrastructure (stable electricity, clean drinking water, road maintenance and modernization). India is working hard to modernize and improve, but has yet to seriously address the issue of population. There's just a lot of people here and they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Sri Lankans have essentially rejected the notion of Caste. Probably because that country is predominantly Buddhist. I have witnessed few beggars, and after traveling through many small towns and villages, I have seen very few desperately poor Lankans. But is this why Sri Lanka is visibly cleaner?  It's not that there seem to be less poor people in Sri Lanka. I believe its about personal responsibility.  I think India's willingness to accept caste conveniently simplifies what people perceive to be as their personal responsibility.
Litter is the easiest example of this. And the topic of litter gets me back to the thing that really bugs me about India. In Sri Lanka I have never witnessed someone drop trash on the ground. Sri Lanka is not without litter, but Lankan streets and public spaces are generally much cleaner, better groomed and more well-maintained than India's. 

Here in India I have seen hundreds and hundreds of people drop trash on the ground without any hesitation or care. Personal drivers have littered right in front of me. Wealthy Indians on safari (right inside India's beautiful National Wildlife Preserves) have tossed empty plastic bottles and snack wrappers while standing next to me. Policeman, college students, businessmen and women, even Catholic nuns -- they have all been active participants in dumping personal trash on the ground in front of me. Often I confront them on the spot, but 1.2 billion people can generate a lot of curb-side garbage. I know not all Indians believe or value this age-old idea of caste, but I blame your mess squarely on your society's anachronistic belief that some people are above certain duties. Tell me, is it really someone else's responsibility to deal with the litter you or your organisation has discarded? (What do you think?) 

Every place I have ever been (with the possible exception of Singapore) has its own share of pollution, and litter... Americans sadly still litter, and we certainly need to drive less, buy less and use less packaging. But our streets, neighborhoods and public spaces, like Sri Lanka's, are generally cleaner. Europeans certainly need to smoke less, and the Chinese have had a knack for quickly adopting many of the West's bad behaviors. India wants its rightful place on the worlds stage - as it should have. But she will never be an equal partner in the eyes of outsiders until the population here acknowledges the visual mess it presents to the world.

I believe it's not a problem for your government to solve. Government can help though public awareness, but to actually eliminate the waste - the trash that is just about everywhere... That is all about acknowledging personal responsibility. If there is a dustbin, please use it. If there isn't one, hold on to your garbage until you find one. Take charge. Don't just clean up your yard, clean the street in front of your house (or if you can afford it, pay someone to do it for you).  Organize your neighbors to clean up and maintain your block, your neighborhood park. If you think it looks messy, I REALLY think it looks messy. And above all, if you see someone else litter, give them a hard time about it. It's not someone else's role to do it for you.
Like it or not, until these habits improve, I believe places like Sri Lanka will always look brighter and cleaner to her visitors. Lankans may even be a little happier despite their own share of the world's problems.


Praneta said...

Why are the streets so filthy in India..??

I've been asking myself the same question since i was....what... 6 or 7 years old..!!

I dont understand why 90% of people in my Fellow Indians prefer to throw trash here and there instead of walking a few steps to find the nearest Trash Can...

Im glad im part of the remaining 10%...

HouseBoy said...

I think this is slowly getting better... but still has a long way to go. The general public disregard for communty waste has a direct impact on some even more importatn issues here like clean sources of drinking water, and infant mortality.

Thanks for reading.