Friday, 2 December 2011

India's garbage: there is hope

Anyone who has spent much time in Indian towns and cities will know that garbage management is not a forte here. While the plush bits of Delhi and the major tourist attractions are generally kept sparkling clean, elsewhere it's a different story. In places, it's not uncommon for the piles of rubbish lying on the streets to get so big that passing vehicles have to swerve to avoid them, and pedestrians are well-accustomed to having to step over all manner of nastiness to go about their business.

Why is this a problem for India? Partly because the country is undergoing rapid urbanisation, and the kind of infrastructure necessary to keep the impact of spiralling city populations to a minimum is just not in place - not to mention a shortage of funds that can only be exacerbated by the country's corruption problems. But this doesn't explain everything. Even in smaller towns, the same issues arise, and on my road trip in Kerala earlier this year I witnessed stretches of semi-rural roads with garbage lined up along either side for kilometres at a time. So is there something more fundamentally problematic in Indian attitudes towards their public spaces?

That seems to be what the people behind the Ugly Indian initiative in Bangalore think. I read about this on the BBC a couple of days ago: a group of anonymous volunteers who meet up via social networking and email, to clean up Bangalore one street at a time. By the looks of it they are having considerable success.

What I find interesting about this story is that it both confirms and challenges some stereotypes about India. The country is, in Western minds, inextricably linked with dirt and poor hygiene - a very common reaction when I told people I was moving here was "don't get sick", and recently the movie Eat, Pray, Love caused outrage here when a character was advised not to touch anything after coming to India. It would be foolish to pretend there isn't some truth in this, though I've been here nearly six months now without having any major problems (a slight upset following my trip to Varanasi aside).

The organisers of the Ugly Indian initiative seem to acknowledge that this is a real problem with attitudes, not just a symptom of a developing country: the mission is rooted in an attempt to "understand the Indian mind and attitude towards cleanliness" and "outwit him/her with clever solutions". This positions it not just as a matter of picking up litter, but actively combating everyday Indians who neglect the cleanliness of their environment.

So the "dirty" stereotype has some justification. But at the same time, the development of this initiative shows that society here is a lot more innovative and dynamic than it is sometimes credited with being, and that there is a healthy sense of community spirit. Before coming here I read Pavan K Varma's brilliant Being Indian, in which he argues that Hindu spirituality, which emphasises individual approaches to God, and a linked social structure based on tight family units and rigid social divisions, has led to a country disinclined to evangelism and aggressive expansionism, but also inward-looking and lacking in community sentiment. There's maybe something in this - but I find it hard to reconcile with an initiative so selfless as the Ugly Indian.

The most astonishing thing is the anonymity. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think even the most altruistic initiatives in the West wouldn't take this approach (I'm not talking about anonymous charity donation, which is a bit different I think, but active community initiatives). But here it has been seen as a big factor behind the success - maybe (and I'm just speculating) because it frees the participants from the traditional sense of shame about engaging in the menial and dirty activities reserved for the low castes.

Whatever the reasons for its success, I hope London and other UK cities are looking at this as an inspiration (I'm sure, as a colleague of mine pointed out, that Mr Cameron would just love to have this kind of "Big Society" initiative take off in the UK). I also hope that Indian activists like Anna Hazare (the anti-corruption campaigner and hunger striker whose approach I'm not the biggest fan of) take a look and maybe reflect on the fact that if an issue isn't made into a personal promotion, it allows everyone to focus on what's really important.

But most of all, I hope the initiative spreads to Delhi and that I can join in the clean up. Anonymously, of course.


Anonymous said...

"I also hope that Indian activists like Anna Hazare (the anti-corruption campaigner and hunger striker whose approach I'm not the biggest fan of) take a look and maybe reflect on the fact that if an issue isn't made into a personal promotion, it allows everyone to focus on what's really important. "

Everything in your post was ok but above comment.I think you don't know anything about Anna Hazare other than what you have read in magazines.I think you have just misunderstood the whole concept of HungerStrike.

Anyway , I am surprised you are taking so much interest in social and political problems of India and are discussing it with a genuine intent of finding the reason and solution.

Chris said...

To be honest, given the popularity of Mr Hazare here, I'm surprised no-one has come back to me on this until now!

I'm very happy to hold my hands up and say there's lots I don't know about what is happening here. I just give my individual perspective and impressions which you're very welcome to challenge.

My views on Mr Hazare are based on following recent events in the newspapers and via online news, and by discussing him with Indian friends and colleagues (some of whom are fans of his, some of whom not). I realise he is a hero to many here and that he's successfully got the issue of corruption to the top of the agenda.

But I still don't agree with his methods. I think the effect of his campaign has been to personalise the issue - make it about "Anna Hazare vs the Government" - which in turn has obscured the substance of the issue - the reasons why corruption is so damaging for India. I also don't see why he has a mandate to "demand" that the government accept his version of the bill.

I'm not sure how I have misunderstood the concept of a hunger strike - it seems pretty self explanatory to me (but please tell me if I am missing something)! And I think its overall effect is damaging - it encourages people to try to change things they don't like by inflicting harm on themselves, rather than by democratic processes. That might be appropriate for circumstances of extreme desperation, but India is a democracy and I think its leaders - even self-appointed ones - should reflect that.

I'm not saying there are somehow "perfect" versions of democracy elsewhere - goodness knows every democracy in the world is flawed. These were just my observations on Indian democracy because that's where I live - I have plenty of very critical views of British democracy too (among others. I'm an opinionated bugger).

And if you knew me you wouldn't be surprised that I am taking an interest in social and political issues here. Old habits die hard!

All the best