Tuesday, June 2

Cleaning up our act

This piece in NYT asks a question that almost very Indian has asked in some form; "why do governments that cannot manage the basics of public hygiene think that they can micro-manage an economy?" Edward Glaeser then proceeds to talk about India and Mumbai's urban development and water works management in particular.

For years I have wondered why our local governments fail to provide basic water and sewer systems, and maintain minimum levels of public hygiene. When my local municipal corporator turned a nala/open toilet into a beautiful jogging park people were immensely surprised and relieved. It transformed some 4 kms of the nala into a stink free, hygienic, serene, aesthetically appealing area. At the same time he also arranged for toilets to be build for those that were now deprived of their space. It was not an innovative undertaking but it was essential for the health of the neighborhood. That there must have been political and monetary payoff is another issue.

One reason for this apathy (I was told) for public hygiene is that we as a society lack a culture of public hygiene. And sometimes when I visit predominately South Asian neighborhoods in the US, or places like Devon Avenue (Chicago) I want to believe it. These places are so unclean you wonder if you are in the same city that has clean roads two blocks away. And I am sure this has nothing to do with discrimination on part of the local authorities. While in India you will find cleanliness fanatics whose houses are spotless, they couldn't care less about the buildings they live in. The same people are so disgusted by the garbage accumulating in their neighborhood that they will fling their garbage bags from a distance, whether it lands inside the bins or not is not their business. Even schools and hospitals cannot maintain clean restrooms. Spitting is a national pass-time that I have still to understand. Even temples make you cringe. With all the sovla/suddhikaran ideas ingrained in Hindu rituals, why is the God's house so dirty? How is that permissible?

I understand that public hygiene and water and sewer maintenance costs a lot of money. And many local governments are perpetually cash strapped. Yet it is not impossible to promote cleanliness and enforce existing laws and policies strictly. Most of the road cleaners can be seen chatting early morning when a lot of work still remains to be done. And then as the traffic increases they have a valid reason to not do their job efficiently. One can walk miles before finding a garbage bin on the road, and people consider this a valid excuse for disposing off their waste anywhere. Public toilets are feasting grounds for diseases. Pet owners do not own the shit, leaving it for people to step on and clean. The list can go on and on.

At the end of the day no matter how many malls we build or how much our average income increases, if the State cannot maintain basic public hygiene it has failed in more than one ways. Of course unless we develop a basic civic sense and responsibility for keeping our neighborhoods clean, no State action can ever be sufficient. There are sufficient decently clean people in India it is just a matter of applying the same principles to public life.

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