This is a follow up to my previous post (“A Tale of Trash“). This was published on Niti Central Oct 22nd.
Making India Clean
Previously published at NitiCentral.com.
Among the things that need to be done for improving India, making the streets clean does not appear to loom large in anyone’s imagination. When there are bigger worries – public health, education, nutrition, clean drinking water, electricity, roads, public transportation – that concern the population and the policymakers, should one worry about clean public spaces? Perhaps one should.
There are things that we can do at a local level as individuals that can make a difference. There is little an individual can do to make a noticeable difference in the big-ticket items mentioned above. We cannot all chip in armed with shovels to build roads, or organize to build a power plant. Those things require top-down planning, huge corporations, big financing, and have long lead times. But clean streets are a local, decentralized, distributed, immediately achievable outcome.
Public cleanliness is a local matter. All the garbage on the streets is locally produced and deposited on the streets by individuals. Every piece of trash was thrown by someone or the other either deliberately or thoughtlessly. If it becomes culturally unacceptable to throw trash in the streets, then the streets would be clean.
Certainly cultural unacceptability is not sufficient. Collective action in terms of having places to deposit garbage and regular garbage collection are necessary also. But without a change in the culture, streets will continue to be an eye-sore. Garbage strewn streets have a real negative effect on everyone – including visitors. One of the most commonly heard complaint from foreigners about India is that India is littered with garbage and the impression that Indians are dirty people is well justified.
Sometimes when this topic is brought up in casual conversations with other Indians, wounded pride responds with “Sure, they keep their streets clean. But don’t they pollute the global commons with their CO2 emissions and their wasteful over-consumption?” Yes, they certainly pollute globally and blame is justified. But our response to their irresponsibility should not be to pollute our own environment. If they throw rocks at us, that cannot be used as a justification for us vandalizing our own homes. Besides, if we had the opportunity to pollute the global commons, are we sure that we would not do exactly as they do?
There are regional variations in the degree of dirty streets in India. South India is relatively cleaner than North India; Kerala and Goa are distinctly less littered than UP and Bihar. Partly this must be due to the cultural acceptability of litter and partly to the quality of the governance. Both of these can be changed for the better.
An example close to India comes from Singapore—my favourite city state. As in all underdeveloped poor economies, Singapore was filthy. Fortunately when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the great visionary statesman, took control of the newly-formed nation of Singapore in 1965, he determined that Singapore had to become clean and green. The results were spectacular: in just a couple of decades, he transformed the city into a squeaky-clean place. Littering was heavily fined and rigorously enforced. In 1992, Singapore even imposed a ban on the use, sale and importation of chewing gum.
When Singapore’s example is brought up, the normal tendency is to say that it’s a tiny city compared to India; therefore what works in Singapore will not work in India. But that objection is untenable. Laws and rules are not physical goods; they are what in economics are called “public goods.” Applying a rule at a place does not exhaust the rule so that it cannot be applied elsewhere. One person’s use of a physical good reduces the amount available for use by others. But public goods are “non-rival” in use. Regardless of how large or small the population is, rules have the same effect everywhere.
The reason I bring up Singapore in this context is to show that it is possible to change how acceptable littering is in a culture. Human behaviour is malleable to a large extent – provided the right incentives are instituted. India too can become clean and green if it gets the right kind of leadership, the kind that values public sanitation and cleanliness.
I am aware that Shri M K Gandhi was concerned and talked about public sanitation. That India continues to be dirty shows that such talk is cheap and ineffective. The Buddha stressed the use of kaushalya-upaya or “skilful means” – regardless if the goal is enlightenment or sanitation. Clearly in the context of India, exhorting people with talk about cleanliness is not a skilful means of achieving clean surrounding. It requires leadership and political will.
Public cleanliness is possible but like everything else in the universe, it does come at some cost. The question is whether there are benefits to having clean public spaces other than the most obvious ones such as that is looks nice. One benefit is that it makes people feel nice and thus promotes wellbeing, which in turn makes people more caring. There is less crime in well-maintained public places compared to neglected ones, the so-called “broken-window theory.”
Another benefit is the feeling of ownership and belonging that one feels towards clean places. The pride of ownership is a “gateway feeling.” It empowers you to start caring about what is going on in your neighbourhood and participating in the governance of your local place.
I believe that it is high time that Indian leaders took the matter of public cleanliness very seriously. It may not be as dramatic as claiming that they will make India a superpower (whatever that is) but aiming to make India a clean and green place to live in would be a wonderful change.