Littering in public spaces is something I grew up seeing people do all around me in my childhood. We came from a modest family living in a trendy part of Mumbai, but we are essentially traders from North India. On family outings on Sundays, I would see people openly throwing plastic wrappers, food items and wet rubbish wherever they happened to be consuming any of this. If this place was a park or the middle of a moving car, the rubbish would not be held to be disposed off later, but disowned immediately, almost vengefully, right then and there. I have witnessed people throw entire coconut shells out of a moving car onto the road. At home, my elders found nothing odd about tossing what’s unnecessary straight out of the window of our 5th floor apartment. They didn’t give much thought to the progressively growing garbage dump below our building, which, if we leaned out of our window, we could catch a glimpse of. This was the early 90s.
Today, I would like to believe that people are more aware and follow better practices in general. And yet, we still see littering all around us. What we now also see though, is an equally focussed drive to clean up by volunteers, that matches the enthusiasm of the ones littering. It seems to me that this awareness is largely limited to metropolitan cities in India presently, with a few exceptions. On a trip to tourist-friendly Rajasthan, on the evening of Holi (festival of colours), I was walking the semi-deserted main street in Jodhpur city which led up to the famous Clock Tower and Meherangarh Fort ( a tourist hub and big marketplace). Most shopkeepers and street peddlers were shut for the day and all I could see were two things: the litter stretching almost the entire width of the main road (not just the pavement) and the slowly-settling evening dust in the air. I saw empty dustbins with trash strewn all around it, as if people couldn’t even be bothered aiming towards it. As I walked down this street despondently, and pondered on the act of littering; I asked myself, why do we litter?
On the face of it, we are disowning what we don’t want or is of no use to us anymore; but by disposing it immediately, then and there, wherever we are, and always in spaces that are shared with others and not entirely our own, the act of littering seems to be an act of defiance that comes with a devil-may-care attitude that lives inside the best of us. That tiny voice asking us, “is anyone looking at me?”, or that short justification we give ourselves that, “I can’t see a dustbin around”, or “it’s only a tiny wrapper”, or “a fruit peel is completely natural, it will decompose”, etc. Some of us use the ‘entitled’ argument and direct blame towards the government for “not installing enough dustbins”, or towards our neighbor – “why should I bother when he doesn’t?”.
I recognize something very fragmented in our sense of community. Our civic responsibility seems to originate first from the thought, ‘what’s in it for me‘, and only then it may be followed by a sense of responsibility towards our surroundings.
So, what are we really disowning? We are disowning structure and rules. We are disowning minute governance and control. We are rejecting the helplessness that comes from not being able to change our current plight. And because we don’t know any better, we are disowning by littering.
Middle-income India litters because it can. There is no one to stop them. There is no fine, rarely police and very little awareness through role modeling, and therefore, no clear rule that one is actually not supposed to litter. We educate our children, but children don’t retain values taught at school unless they are reinforced at home. Ignorance is bliss and pretending to be ignorant can be often even more blissful.
When I was a newly-returned NRI in Mumbai in 2007, I used to stop and personally tell-off people I saw littering on the road. I would ride my bike and not hesitate to ask those throwing wrappers out of taxis and cars, “do you do the same in your house?”. Eventually though, I tired of it. I saw myself as a small pawn trying to win the whole game of chess and admitted that my efforts also came from a small part of me that was trying to redeem itself from the guilt of creating the garbage I had in this world. I love some of the ad campaigns on TV initiated by the government that show people clapping heartily and cheering on the litterer in the middle of the act! It’s a satirical message that is clearly delivered and understood. It’s a start and it is already creating waves of awareness.
Eventually, I also understood that instead of getting back at people by telling people what they are doing wrong, I could pay it forward by encouraging someone to do it right.