Culture Travel

Obliviously obvious – India is dirty

Image: Wikipedia

Reflecting on the thoughts and opinions I entertained while spending time in India, I think that I came away for it having learned new lessons and for those lessons to be shared with people who may not get this experience.  Otherwise, what justifies the indulgence of traveling somewhere to learn when you can stay at home and read? However the lessons are not as apparent as I might have hoped.  Having experienced mild culture shock earlier in my life spending time in Cambodia, the surface appearances and outward behaviours one encounters in India didn’t have the same shocking effect and obvious impact they once might have.

The lessons India administers can be as subtle as a breeze in your hair; an ordinary everyday experience which leaves you feeling like you’ve been changed somehow but not quite sure what that change is until a later instance of self-reflection.  My most profound learnings in India have been of a very personal nature and as of yet I’m not quite able to encapsulate them in words for sharing, but I will endeavour to raise myself to the task.

On the other hand, some aspects of India, which may be deemed blinding obvious from the surface even without visiting the country, have provided me with interesting observations of the culture when examined a little closer.

India is dirty
India is corrupt
India is crowded
India loves gold
India is spiritual

Each of these will be examined in due course.  Of course it should be stated that these observations are completely subjective based on my limited experiences in India and in no way should be taken to define the indefinable subject which is India and Indian culture.

India is dirty
One of the most oft-noted and discussed aspects among visitors to India is just how dirty and littered it is.   Upon arrival it’s something which can take some time to get used to, but you do get used to it.  I only noticed how accustomed I had become to it when I visited Mangalore, a city in the more economically developed south, and had this strange feeling when walking around the city.  “It’s so clean”, I remarked to my companion.  “It feels so weird!”, she responded as we ambled through a town centre which did not have any litter. This is not to suggest that Mangalore was the only place where I noticed cleanliness but it was noteworthy at the time as it was the first clean street I had observed in a number of months, over a few thousand kilometres of travel.

To say that “litter” and the act of “littering” are the problems at hand does not paint this picture with the vivid colours and gigantic canvas this situation warrants.  A person can be accused of littering when they neglect to dispose of their waste in the bin.  India has neither bins nor a concept of waste disposal which involves applying any more effort than throwing the litter out of your immediate personal space. It’s almost as if by moving it out of your personal space, it ceases to exist.

When confronted with a problem (the rubbish) with an easily identifiable solution (clean it up), one immediately starts pondering the reasons as to why this is not already happening. Having discussed his with numerous people some of the underlying notions which create this outcome were revealed.

An American acquaintance named Max told me a story which I shall paraphrase:

“Travelling on a train, I found myself sitting beside the Head of R&D for a well known Indian pharmaceutical company.  This gentleman was from the highest caste in India, had the finest of educations and occupied a vaulted position in Indian social society.  We began discussing all manner of matters and soon we came to the issue of the rubbish.

A strain of his higher caste sentiments were coming to the fore when describing how the problem should be tackled; “it’s a case of ‘it’s not my problem’, there’s someone else whose job it is to pick up the rubbish”.

A person of his caste, Brahman, would expect that someone of a lower caste would be tasked with picking up the rubbish so therefore it was not something he needed concern himself with.  I asked him, “As a scientist, do you think the rationale behind your thinking is grounded in reality?”.  “Obviously not, just take a look around you.” he replied referring to the rubbish strewn at the side of the tracks.

“What do you think could actually be done to change the situation”, I asked?   “Encouraging each individual to be responsible for his actions and not to pass the responsibility onto someone else”, he responded after some contemplation.  Satisfied that I had engaged this intelligent man in a conversation which had brought about a realisation, I settled into my seat to enjoy the remainder of the journey.

A few minutes later, my enlightened friend unwrapped a sweet, popped the sweet in his mouth and then leaned over me to toss the wrapper out the window of the moving train.  Our eyes met and in that moment, our conversation was relived, each and every word, and like the impending fate of the sweet wrapper, all the lessons went right out the window as he said to me ‘There’s someone whose job it is to clean up the tracks.’ “

Ugly Indians?
When looking for reasons to explain this situation, you’ll encounter a number of the same themes: government corruption; lack of funds; lack of public awareness to commit to a clean up; lack of personal responsibility.

One group who are taking to cleaning the streets of Bangalore, have a postulated that one of the main reasons is “ugly Indians”.

© Copyright 2010. The Ugly Indian. All rights reserved. An e9ds design

“We Ugly Indians are part of the problem and only we can solve it.”

The situation is acknowledged by those at the highest offices of the Government yet the problem persists.

“Our cities are the dirtiest in the world. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it hands down.” Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment 2009-2011.

The future
It’s inevitable that this situation will be rectified, either by choice or ultimately necessity when the mounds of rubbish pile so high that they pose an issue to the balance of the earth on its axis of rotation.  The timeline for this is the trillion dollar question.  I say trillion dollar question as I think that the cleaning up of india will have effects far greater than just making the streets lighter of litter.

In a manner similar to the broken windows theory, a social-political initiative in New York in the 1980s where the central concept was as such: repair the broken windows and other small cosmetic defects in a neighbourhood, people will start taking more pride in their community and as a result, petty crime will fall.  The experiment was deemed a success and has been documented in considerable detail by researchers and writers.  India’s broken windows are its piles of rubbish.

Addressing the issue and cleaning up India could have a propagating effect on the population which will carry forth into other areas which require cleaning up.  Once the streets are cleaned up, people will inevitably begin to take greater pride in their communities, villages, towns and cities and will be propelled forward to solving other social problems.  Clean up the street and you’ll clean up the country.

Deep down I think the Indian politician establishment knows this and it would go a long way towards explaining their lack of action toward solving this easy-to-solve issue.  In a country of 1.4 billion people, there is no lack of resources to address these problems, but there is a lack of motivation to get things started.

In part 2 (India is corrupt), I will talk about some of my observations on the Indian political process during the run up to the 2014 election where Narendra Modi lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in a country fraught with electoral corruption.

Related reading:
The police and neighborhood safety – BROKEN WINDOWS by JAMES Q. WILSON AND GEORGE L. KELLING

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