Around thirty years ago while on a visit to the Peoples’ Republic of China I used to watch Chinese films on the small black & white TV set having nothing to do in the evenings. True, I did not understand a word of what was said and yet, for understanding emotions one does not need to know the language. The films used to be mostly about peasants and workers with young boys and girls working together. In one film I found a little romance between a boy and a girl. It seemed to have blossomed, quite unglamorously, while they swept the streets together in the early mornings. Later, they would furtively meet again between classes at their college. Obviously, they were not municipal sweepers; they were students and had to do such civic duties. This I came to know from one of the Chinese escorts we had. Devoid of any caste hierarchies like ours, no stigma is ever attached in China to such duties that are beneath dignity for most of us.
During the same trip abroad we were in Japan for a fortnight. One late evening in Shinjuku area of Tokyo I came out of the famous camera shop of Yudobashi and settled down on a thoughtfully-provided bench to have a quiet smoke. I had hardly smoked half of my fag when a man in light blue half shirt and deep blue trousers with dark blue peak cap came out broom in hand. From his appearance he looked almost like an airline pilot. He swept the surroundings of the shop, which in our case would be public space, collected whatever little litter he found in a bin took it away inside the shop. I was later told that everyone cleans up the areas around their respective shops before closure. That explained the absence of any litter on the streets in the mornings. Even Prime Minister Modi observed during his recent trip to Japan that children thoroughly clean every part of their school.
Cut to Bhopal a few years ago. One morning I happened to be at the local New Market rather early for the locals, i.e. around 11 AM. The shop that I went to was being swept by a casual employee. Quite contrary to what I had seen in Shinjuku, after having swept all the rubbish and collecting it all together, the sweeper used the broom to push all that outdoors on to the street right outside the shop. The dust and plastic flew around in the rather strong September breeze. Surprised, I asked the shop-keeper whether he didn’t have a bin for the trash his shop generated to be emptied at a municipality-designated place, he gave me a curious look as if I was an extra-terrestrial.
In 1966 while working at Jabalpur in central India I happened to be going by road to Keymore via Katni. Just outside Katni I saw about two dozen small brick and mortar cubicles in apparent disuse. On inquiry I was told these were numerous toilets built for the villagers but had remained unused. One wonders what went wrong – either these were planned badly or were not maintained properly or the users found it inconvenient. Again, while escorting a senior colleague to a village close to Nagpur, again in central India, in 1979 both of us had to put our hankies to our respective noses as we picked our way through the lumps of human excreta strewn all over. The village was seemingly blocked off by these lumps and the stench. Here was a village that needed toilets but there was none and, surely, this one was not the only one where there were no toilets.
Our proclivity to mess up our surroundings apparently has a cultural connection. We, the Hindus, have that regimen of regularly pouring water over ourselves to supposedly cleanse our bodies but would never bother about cleaning our surroundings. We will bathe in the Ganges to purify ourselves but leave it contaminated. The public places are, well, of the public; hence why should one bother about them? Besides, it is infra dig for a caste Hindu to clean-up the public places, not to speak of his own personal spaces. There are lower castes whose job has traditionally been to clean-up the public places and toilets, if any, at home. The Hindu caste hierarchy comes into play in these matters and this is prevalent in many parts of the country even today. No wonder India is largely unclean. From dirt, garbage, trash, dung of various stray animals one would find all of them on the Indian streets. Littering, spitting, urinating and sometime even defecating openly are commonly occurrences. Once I happened to see a man defecating on the sands of Chowpatty in central Mumbai in broad daylight and ditto on another occasion on the tracks between two platform of Bhopal Jn.
Defecation out in the open is partly cultural and not entirely out of necessity. I recall my professor at the college once chided me for being a late-riser. He said he would get up a 5.00 in the morning, walk out of the house for his constitutional with a lota-ful (a vessel-ful) of water. He had a house with a toilet and had no earthly reason to go out and defecate in the open. Yet, in this matter the culture in which he was brought up, presumably, in his village in the Hindi Belt comprising Uttar Pradesh, took over.
With all the good intentions, one suspects, therefore, whether Modi would be able to clean up India within the next five years – by 2019, Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Our habits and beliefs – social or religious – are so deep-rooted that it would need a herculean effort to change the profoundly ingrained attitudes. It will take generations for the change to take place; one would need to begin at the beginning, starting off with the toddlers, as it were. Actually other countries, too, did not become what they are today overnight. Education, a cultural upgrade and the state machinery, all effectively played their respective roles. We have been far too lax and far too profligate for far too long. We have allowed cities, towns and villages to deteriorate, decay and degrade over years and decades. There seems to have been practically no governance and no public-health administration. Given our attitudes – lack of pride in the country and a pronounced unconcern for civic cleanliness –five years, clearly, is too short a period to liquidate the dungheap that has been built up over ages.
On the flip side, however, it may not be utterly impossible to clean up the country. After all, millions from our very own stock are settled abroad and have adapted to the ways of their respective host countries, whether in the East or the West. While some things of the hosts' culture do naturally rub off on the immigrants, the Indians there have drastically changed their unclean ways, mostly because of strict enforcement of laws and stiff penalties for deviant behaviour. If the Rule of Law is similarly enforced with a strong arm on every one – those who muck up the country and those who slip up on their duties of cleaning-up – surely things are likely to change appreciably. For that to happen, however, the states and their civic bodies and panchayats (village councils) would need to be sensitised. What would need to be inculcated are pride in one’s country and commitment to one’s duties, sometimes perhaps fostered even with a force that is not quite gentle.