Wednesday, October 3, 2012
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”-Gandhi.
Scene: The street near my home at 8am
It was the morning that followed the end of the Ganesh Festival. The high decibel revelry had lasted till late night. Generous devotees and savvy vendors had worked hard to ensure that no one in the huge crowd of revellers went hungry or thirsty. Now, the streets were littered with paper trays, plastic cups, and partly eaten food. Foraging strays and flies had begun their feast. The sun was up and the sickly smell of spoilt food had set in. The sanitation staff had just arrived and, accustomed as they were to dirt and grime in their jobs, even they looked shellshocked.
It was a disgusting sight; and that was putting it very mildly.
Somehow, civic consciousness and public celebration of faith seem to be mutually exclusive. Some months ago I travelled with my family from New Delhi to Amristar. We were booked in an airconditioned coach and looked forward to a comfortable, uneventful journey. We were quickly proved wrong.
To begin with, our coach was dirty. Again, that was putting it mildly. Debris from the preceding journey still littered the floor. The rubbish bins kept near the wash basins at both ends of the coach were overflowing. The magazine pouches in front of the seats were stuffed with empty snack packets, soft drink cartons, paper trays and aluminium foils. As if this was not enough, a pair of well fed rats scurried around nibbling at the discards lying on the floor.
Also travelling in our coach was a group of pilgrims returning home after a trip to Gujarat. By all accounts they were a well-to-do lot and worldly wise. Thus, what followed came as a disappointment. As soon as the train pulled out of New Delhi station, they got down to giving a remarkable display of the famed Indian hospitality and the very Indian disregard of civic sense. The group treated everyone in the coach to fruit juice, rosogollas, hot kachoris, kulfis, fresh fruit and assorted savouries. One item was followed by the next without a pause or giving an opportunity to refuse. (It also completely demoralised the in-train catering staff which retreated to the pantry car and remained there till the journey ended .)
This went on for the better part of the journey. Very soon, more plastic cups, paper trays and partly eaten foodstuff were being added to the mess that on the floor. It was a distinctly unappetising sight. One thought came to my mind: couldn’t our hosts have ensured that the leftovers and waste were collected in plastic bags disposed off at one of the stops? Surely, they could not have failed to notice the condition of our coach. As they were the ones who were serving, the least they could have done was to make sure that the mess did not get worse.
The Golden Temple complex in Amritsar is run by an army of dedicated volunteers who consider it a sacred duty to work there. The kar sevaks- as the volunteers are called- look after the footwear of the visitors, keep the premises clean, keep the pond steps dry, serve water, work in the kitchens, serve langar, wash the dishes. In short, any work that is needed is willingly performed by a kar sevak.
Sadly, this sense of duty does not extend beyond the compound walls of the Golden Temple. The streets outside the Golden Temple complex are chaotic and dirty. Amritsar’s street food has a passionate global following and the crowds that throng the narrow roads in the evenings must be seen to be believed. It is great for commerce. It is also a public hygiene disaster. Cannot the Golden Temple authorities use their considerable influence and resources to bring about a change for the better?
A few days later, we reached Chandigarh in time for Hanuman Jayanti. Well-to-do worshippers of Lord Ram’s Supreme Devotee made and distributed Prasad in large quantities. The minor necessity of providing waste containers seemed to have escaped their attention and the neighbourhood looked every bit as dirty as the New Delhi-Amritsar Express a few days earlier.
The saddest fact is that we regard such incidents as an unavoidable collateral effect of doing a “community good”. We, who have no qualms about invoking Gandhi’s name to claim the high moral ground, seem to have forgotten that Gandhi led by example in matters of cleanliness and hygiene.
The law can't do much as it is a problem of societal attitudes.It is not acceptable to tip your household rubbish outside your home. It is not acceptable that the organizers of public functions leave the debris to cleared by someone else later. Let us- individually and collectively- say no to litter.