The Dirty Filthy North Indian

Published: August 11, 2015 18:52 IST
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So what's new about the Swachh Bharat survey of Indian cities? Nothing. Did they really need a survey to tell us that North Indian cities and towns are without doubt the dirtiest in the land (and probably in the world)? That Delhi (the part administered by the MCD - which is most of the capital) is among the country's 100 filthiest cities, joining 73 other North Indian cities in that lowly group. This conglomerate of smelly eyesores (multiple assault on senses) includes our holiest of holy - Varanasi, Allahabad, Ajmer and Amritsar. Obviously Godliness and Cleanliness are not related, or at least in the North. 

The last time I went to Vishwanath Gali in Varanasi, I ran away in disgust; I wasn't going to walk barefoot to the sacred temple, because the idea was quite revolting. The lovely Hindi word "ghin" (revulsion), describes what one felt. And what is true of the road to the temple is true of the temple, the ghats, and much of Varanasi. I could not understand people's love for this eternal city. And I am not alone on this. 

Sample this review from TripAdvisor - "We visited this temple in March 2013. To enter we had to lock our cameras in the locker and we had to take off our shoes. In the previous Hindu temples, I had no problem as it was kind of clean, but here you had to cross the street full of cow excrements and pee. In the temple itself it was not different just with that difference that there were monkeys peeing instead of cows."

Why don't we feel this when we go to temples in the South? Or in their cities? Seven of the 10 cleanest cities are from the South, and 39 in the top 100. Why is it that South Indians (Madrasis, as all we Northerners disparagingly term them) manage to keep their cities and places of worship cleaner than we do? What is wrong with us? Are we just plain uncivilized (as most Madrasis would have us believe) or is there something more to it? Is it just a North Indian Hindu problem?  

It is plausible to argue that our severely caste-ridden society has basically created a people who completely lack any sense of community? We pride ourselves on our caste and our cleanliness at home - we bathe, sweep and swab the house, but the minute we step out of our domain, we don't give a damn. After all, those outside our home are not from our jaat and why should we care about them and their sensibilities? This would explain why my neighbour, who everyday hoses down his driveway, has no compunction in throwing his garbage onto the main road. Or why my other neighbour, who is building his palatial home, has covered the pavement with all sorts of building materials.

The cleanliness of Mysuru (now India's swacchest city) is attributed to a collective and community effort: the government, NGOs and people working together to keep a place clean. Compare that with Delhi. With multiple bodies looking after different aspects of the city, nothing works properly and certainly not in keeping Delhi clean. Most cities around the world have a system by which garbage is collected by the municipality from outside your doorstep and taken to the landfill in trucks designed for garbage. Delhi runs on a multiplicity of systems ranging from throwing the garbage onto the street in front of you, or into the drain nearby, or cycle carts organized by Resident Welfare Associations carrying the garbage to nearby dump. These are often located in front of market places and soon overflow with garbage. Once in a while, trucks and earthmovers arrive to load this onto trucks to carry away. Amazing! Where in the world does this happen except in India? Almost a century after Western towns streamlined garbage collection, we haven't been able to figure out what to do.

It is embarrassing when we compare ourselves to other Asian countries outside the old British India. While we all know Singapore is antiseptically clean, on the filth index, we trail almost every other Asian country without exception. Even poor Cambodia, which suffered decades of war, violence and Pol Pot's killing fields, has a better-organized garbage collection system than we do, and Siem Reap and Phnom Phen are far cleaner than Agra or Delhi. So poverty itself is not an excuse; and in any case in India, the better off are much more likely to be dirtying our towns than the poor, who have little to throw. 

And ask yourself why do these same Indians, who go abroad, suddenly become model citizens? They use dustbins, don't throw banana peels from moving vehicles, and stop flicking cigarettes onto the ground. What happens to them? Have they suddenly converted to a new religion, or is it the fear of being fined that makes them behave? My guess is the latter. Fear is probably the key. For all our North Indian bluster, the idea of being punished is not a happy thought. Unfortunately, India is a soft state, where punishment seldom happens and a little bit of hafta keeps the law in abeyance. The top clean cities of the world fine heavily for littering.

So where is the hope in the Swachh Bharat scheme? Is it in building toilets or building the mindset? Delhi got a whole host of public toilets, partly funded by foreign aid, but aside from being used as advertising kiosks, they're ignored by the city's male population which continues to urinate against any wall they feel like. 

So it has to be a change in the attitude of people. How that is achieved is the real challenge. Moralising alone is not going to work, and fining will be blocked by politicians, who fear that any punishment leads to a loss of voter support. AAP is a shining example of this belief: autowallahs no longer have to take anyone where they don't want to go, nor follow any metering system, because as the newly-ordained Brahmins for supporting AAP during the elections, they can do what they want. And as long as this attitude governs our society, we will remain a filthy mess.

(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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