Karan Verma

Views expressed here are mine alone

Why is India so littered & un-clean?


More often than not, India’s public spaces are indeed littered.

Railway stations & compartments, buses, parks, monuments, streets & by-lanes, river banks & sea shores suffer from systematic abuse due to littering, posing environmental, aesthetics & social problems. It’s one of those social issues that is hidden in plain sight – so clearly visible & yet often ignored.

We know how this works- European cities dominate annual worldwide quality of living rankings while emerging countries in Asia & Africa lag behind. Clearly, the problem is not India specific, if anything, most of us believe it’s predominantly an emerging world issue. This makes us immediately suspect that relatively low-income levels & the corresponding low education & literacy levels in emerging countries are the prime drivers of such behavior.

More generically, analyzing such behavior boils down to understanding the trade-offs between self-serving behavior v/s socially responsible behavior. In a society like the one inherited by India post-1947, with high & increasing population density combined with low-income levels & over-regulated business opportunities, generations grew up with a strong need to ‘fend for themselves’ & keep self-interest above everything else. Many countries in Africa face a similar situation today. For such a society, resolving such a conflict between ‘self-gain v/s the greater good’ seems straightforwardly over weighed towards self-interest.

Of course, societies evolve. India is now a $1.8Bn GDP country, ranking it among top-ten globally. However, the per capita income (PPP ‘12) is still <$4000 p.a., ranking us at 126 – behind such countries as Nicaragua, Philippines, Fiji, Guatemala, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Peru, S. Africa & Indonesia. In India, 68% of the population still lives below the poverty definition of $2 earned a day. Can this segment of the society, which lacks access to what we would regard as basic necessities of life, be made aware of littering issues – aren’t they likely to regard this as a ‘triviality’ compared to the struggle for existence that is their daily life?

These factors must certainly contribute to the issue, but it is not true to state that well-educated people from households with income above national average do not contribute to the problem. What could be the reason?  Why is it that many educated Indians don’t think twice before flinging a mineral bottle or a plastic wrapper out the window of the bus or (yes!) car, with total disregard to social obligation- so long as they’ve got rid of the ‘dirt’?

One possible reason can be understood by applying the concept of the ‘Broken Window’ theory: Unattended broken windows (i.e. any social indicators of disorder, however minor) invite further uncivilized behavior. We know this from our experience – Littering invites more litters: once garbage has accumulated along a place, people are more likely to keep up the littering work. The sense of mutual social regard, the obligations of civility – are lowered by existing litter in the place, suggesting “no one cares”, so why should I?

But what begins the littering process in the first place? In his highly readable book ‘Games Indians Play’, V. Raghunathan applies ‘Game Theory’ to  exactly such self-interest v/s social-interest conflicts to understand how Indians behave in the way they do. His point is that by choosing to litter, an Indian believes he is making a very rational choice, especially given that he believes that everyone else around him is also making similar choices, and yes, there is no law being broken here now, is it!! Raghunathan is by no means justifying such behavior, although it is indeed insightful to understand what he has to say. The implication is important: if people indeed believe that their behavior is not wrong, indeed quite logical (even if not entirely appropriate) it will be far more difficult to change such behavior.

Are we, then, doomed to wait for a pass-over of a generation or two of ‘well-bred’ Indians, before the problem attenuates?!

For me, what works the best is the approach taken by the NGO called ‘The Ugly Indians’.  As they astutely (& cutely!) mention on their website:

“This site contains a story of hope and optimism. Cynics are not welcome. By entering this site you accept that:

–   We Ugly Indians are part of the problem and only we can solve it.

–   Explaining ourselves as ‘we are like that only’ is cute. But does not help.

–   You believe that change is possible in your lifetime”

According to several clever experiments done by them at Church Street, Bangalore (excellent stories you should read on their website) they discovered that garbage dumping, filth & urinating in public places are not random events – it usually becomes a well-orchestrated daily ‘ritual’ or cycle, that requires ‘clean up’ efforts to break it for good. Their approach is to eliminate the ‘broken window’ & keep it fixed, cleaning up the place & decorating it with pots/plants while convincing neighborhood shops & houses to stay vigilant for first signs of chaos. And it seems it works! No doubt, they’re doing some great work here & transforming India, one dump at a time!

And while we go about our daily life, stepping into the 67th year of independence, let us resolve to be a part of the solution. Let us ensure we at least manage our own behavior, and those of our kith & kin. Sometimes, it can indeed be that simple.

As the above NGO states it so well as their own experiential conclusion: “There is hope. The Ugly Indian is not that ugly after all


6 comments on “Why is India so littered & un-clean?

  1. Polythene Pam
    August 20, 2013

    I would also have to add that the nature of litter has changed. I have been visiting India for many decades and while never a tidy place, the level of pollution has increased dramatically. In the past the dropped litter was biodegradable. It was eaten by cows, burnt at the end of the day or would rot away in the monsoon rains. Now much of the litter is plastic which of course cannot be eaten, does not burn easily and doesn’t biodegrade. Needless to say rubbish is increasing exponentially and India looks a lot less attractive

  2. rleven
    August 20, 2013

    A very interesting take. I wonder if you’ve shaming was taken into account as a cost in Raghunathan’s Game? i.e. a choice between ridding myself of trash immediately or facing a certain level of public shame. Certainly seems to be at play in the Bangalore experiments.

  3. divvyasinghal2013
    August 26, 2013

    Situation is definitely bad. These so-called metro cities are even worse. No matter how many reforms or awareness campaigns govt launches, this problem can be only tackeled by us. Like you reiterated what “Ugly Indians” have to say, we are not that ugly that nothing can be done. Waste management, dumping needs to be taught about, so that we are well-educated of what it can cause to us & the society.

    • Karan Verma
      August 26, 2013

      I’m glad you’ve shared your message of hope while reiterating the gravity of the issue. Thank you!

  4. Surabhi Gupta
    September 24, 2014

    Interesting read! Its indeed a grave issue and I believe the problem lies in our attitude. For instance, we do not hesitate even once to litter around us while in India. However, as soon as we cross boundaries and enter a civilised country, our attitude changes completely. There we dont even let our pet to shit on the road, and even if it does we have no qualms in picking it up and throwing it in a bin. We aspire to be a developed nation but I am afraid, we can never reach that stature till the time we learn to respect our own land!

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2013 by in India and tagged , .
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