How often have we all strictly adhered to the 'no littering garbage in public' rule in countries like Singapore during our travel on holidays; and then on landing back in Chennai, not batting an eyelid before letting go of that toffee wrapper on the road?
On Tuesday, when the Chennai Corporation moves a resolution to hike the fine for littering garbage from a hundred rupees to five hundred rupees, the city's civic body hopes to inch closer to its counterparts in Singapore and London, where fines for such offences are pretty stiff. But just how close are we to these countries in levying fines? Let's look at the comparison purely for academic interest. In Singapore, the fine is about three hundred dollars; about thirteen thousand Indian rupees. The average monthly salary of a middle class Singapore citizen is about two thousand five hundred dollars; a lakh Indian rupees. So it works out to roughly ten per cent of your income for your lack of civic consciousness. In London, the fine is about a hundred pounds; or about eight thousand Indian rupees. The average monthly income of a middle class citizen there is about two thousand pounds; about a lakh and a half Indian rupees. So the litterbugs would be poorer by about five percent of their monthly take home. In India, if a middle class person earns about twenty five thousand a month, the punishment will be two and a half per cent of the salary. And if you go by Montek's revised Rs 38 a day yardstick of poverty, then the poor man will not be able to afford the fine.
Now compare the fines for traffic offences with the new proposal to haul up those littering garbage - five hundred rupees for driving without a licence, four hundred rupees for overspeeding; for the first time, and three hundred rupees for not wearing a helmet, if it's a repeat violation.
No matter how much you earn, by Indian standards, five hundred rupees for littering does come across as a heavy penalty. When petrol prices are hiked by a few rupees, just see how many swanky cars make a beeline to tank up before midnight to save less than five hundred rupees! But that is not the point. The point here is: will a fine be an effective deterrent? Let me go back to traffic offences. In the last five months, this year, the Chennai Traffic Police collected over eighty six lakh rupees as fines for overspeeding. Over twenty thousand motorists paid up. Has over speeding come down in the city? Are all two wheeler riders wearing helmets? Do you see more helmets on the heads of riders or on the petrol tanks? You don't need an Anna Hazare to explain this. If those who are meant to collect fines are inclined to pocket smaller amounts as bribes instead, what will an offender, in this age of inflation, prefer? That's a no brainer.
Four years ago, when littering garbage was made an offence punishable with a hundred rupee fine, there were apprehensions about whether it would serve as a deterrent. There was the initial knee jerk reaction - two thousand five hundred people fined for littering garbage and dumping debris in the first fortnight in 2008. For the whole of last year, a little over two thousand people were fined! See how the drive lost steam! On the ground, it has been as ineffective as the ban on smoking in public places, which just went up in smoke. Two hundred rupees for smoking was almost the same amount chain smokers would shell out for their quotidian puffs!
To be fair to the average Chennaiite, how many dust bins do we have in the city? What is the average distance between dustbins? A hundred metres? No way! So isn't the civic body equally liable for littering garbage? And what is the fine for not clearing garbage from bins? For garbage lorries strewing filth along the route, like confetti?! (Garbage collection or distribution?!) For Corporation storm water drain contractors digging outside your gate and leaving heaps of soil and stones preventing you from taking your vehicles out for an average of at least a month in each area?
So will the five hundred rupee note trick work? Rubbish!