Photo Courtesy: Erin Pettigrew

Dealing With India’s Cleanliness Problem

As we step into the development process, it is vital that we don’t leave the issue of tidiness aside

From the perspective of a proud Indian, to the Indian public.

You have never wearied yourself discussing about India’s state regarding cleanliness, even though you don’t feel guilty about dropping that Pepsi Can at the roads right before having such discussions. We advise our younger peers to be ‘liberals’ when it comes to the current treatment of the Indian environment, while we insist that it is okay to throw that candy wrapper at the pavement just because we’re lazy to find the nearest trashcan.

As we go for a ride around the streets in India, all we can see is wet mixture of common waste on either side of the road. There’s cow-dung, dog shit, candy wrappers, plastic bottles, newspapers, rotten food items, paper cups. If you could name the most disgusting combination of waste materials, it’s probably there.

Most of us think we are clean, responsible citizens who don’t harm the Indian environment, but none of us succeed in accounting for the things we thought were ‘negligible’. The sum of these ‘negligible’ acts is what leads to foreign documentaries repeatedly displaying our disturbing environmental state, instead of the phenomenal architectural and artistic works that differentiate India from the rest of the world. You don’t even need to predict if a documentary about India might contain disturbing pictures of our dirty streets.

This is supposed to shame us, but who cares, right? That guy who lives across your house dumps his waste in the public roads.

We have muddled such a beautiful country with our waste and argue that India is lagging when it comes to cleanliness solely because of the lack of government attention. The idea of social proof, which doesn’t work regarding issues like Entrepreneurship in India, seems to brilliantly work here since we look towards others to approve ourselves to commit such untidy acts. One doesn’t come to a realization that showing resistance to littering could ultimately cause an invisible ripple effect. I’m pretty sure you might have heard this the thousandth time, but I’m still going to instill the fact that the problem does not lie with the government, it lies with our irresponsibility.

It should be noted that I don’t mean to imply that the government has no role regarding this issue, it has also failed to a large extent in playing a helping hand in assisting the waste management systems and subsidizing the recycling industry. The current program, ‘Swachh Bharat’, has been merely an awareness initiative and has not imposed rules and actions that need to be followed. It is tempting to speculate that the overall impact of Swachh Bharat is very low and has only been an effective publicity stunt. As we delve into managing waste in India, government correction and intervention is paramount.

It’s likely that whatever I have said until now is going to be highly ineffective in changing your littering habits and you considering it as ‘negligible’. Just like TV ads, cleanliness campaigns and catchy slogans, which have all failed to effect the individual’s thinking.

Perhaps, that is the very problem. We should stop tackling this issue from the individual’s perspective and start attempting to solve this problem through the society’s eyes. Let’s assume that an individual develops his care for the environment over time and his beliefs are echoed to the society. Given the level of conservatism among our fellow Indians, the level of education and the time taken to change one’s habits, it’s going to take forever for us to see a visible improvement. When we do achieve a considerably clean environment through this method, the world would’ve probably ended through a meteor strike. This method could prove to be highly ineffective.

When I mention ‘through the society’s eyes’, I try to imply that this matter can be dealt with by considering the society as whole, undertaking actions that directly include and affect the society and it’s collective mindset, instead of targeting each individual’s thinking and habits.

First and foremost, it is important to firmly instill in any Indian mind that littering and unhygienic actions towards the environment are shameful acts. A possible solution, though unappealing to privacy advocates, is public shaming. The fruits we could reap through such a policy would be very high. Of course, it would be impossible to take note of every single act of public littering, what we can do is heed a few through CCTV monitoring and picture shots, and resonate these acts in the mainstream media. Newspapers could assist by having columns that jokingly display the ‘accused’. This imposes that cleanliness is vital among the general public through the intimidation of public shaming. This probably looks likes a covenant that only affects a small number, but it is important to have a broader view and take account of the social effects. Is this pragmatic? That is totally up to you. This is cruel, but so is public littering.

The free enterprise has a huge role to play as well, considering the potential for the recycling industry. Most of the waste in India can be utilized in a productive manner by converting it into useful energy and other helpful materials. Also, various car manufacturers have now adopted to manufacture car seats and steering wheels using recyclable material. It is important that the general public and the government incentivize budding entrepreneurs to take risks and expand the recycling industry, and we could do so by embracing recycling opportunities and educating our fellow peers on this matter. Increasing the number of recycling businesses would increase the accessibility of recycling for India’s subjects, which provides a monetary alternative in contrast to littering. Adding to that, the incorporation of technological methods such as development of apps to contact your nearest recyclers could simplify the approach for both entrepreneurs and the consumers. Various regions like Tokyo have adopted this method, where it’s citizens are encouraged to segregate and supply waste and are paid accordingly. The free enterprise’s role is something I frequently contemplate on, since it provides a monetary incentive for preventing waste accumulation.

The outburst of AI machines is around the corner and with the abundance of engineers and scientists that India has been gifted with, it is vital that they are encouraged by the Indian government to develop machines that tackle India’s environmental problems. If we aren’t going to do it, then let robots do it for us. Drones can be deployed to identify areas that are dense with waste and have been contributing the most to environmental pollution. These areas can then be rectified by deploying intelligent machines or human officials in those areas.

Above all, the media needs to divert it’s attention from who’s dating who and the latest gossip in Bollywood, to environmental awareness. Social media needs to shed the spotlight on environmental conservation and hashtags could extensively be used to display those who harm the environment. India is on the verge of facing it’s most difficult problems, amidst political uncertainty and global tensions, and social media is the tool that should be used by the general public to voice out their opinions and make sure those in power hear it.

The current environmental regulations in India also need vigorous improvement. There needs to be appropriate fines for public littering. There is plenty of international proof where imposing fines have worked, a popular example would be Singapore where littering is highly opposed by the local government and hefty fines are imposed when people are caught doing so. This worked, with the numbers stating that littering offenses had dipped after such impositions.

With our current momentum to make our country a better place to live in, it is essential not to leave tidiness out of the picture. Though the measures such as public shaming might at first sound impractical, the benefits might far outweigh the costs. Along with new and upcoming innovations in the field of AI, we should look towards how we can use these innovations to improve our current environmental state. It is time we stop accusing the government for it’s inaction and start taking matters in our own hands through voicing out on social media and embracing recycling opportunities. This problem of cleanliness has developed into a complex problem and it is essential that we tackle it now through appropriate measures, before it leads to other complications which might demand more of our resources.

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