17 August 2009

Indians: You Disgust Me

While I normally try to keep this pretty upbeat and fun (and parenthetical), I've decided to give myself one post per trip to get up on a soapbox and post about something that I think is important. This is it for this trip but if you're not inclined to read the whole thing, here is the short version: don't litter.

So it really annoys me back home when I see smokers just toss their cigarette butts on the ground, maybe grind them out (to ya know, not start a fire) and then walk away. What is it about cigarettes that makes this acceptable? These exact same people would never just drop an empty bag of chips or bottle or water. The difference in India is that people absolutely will, and do, throw empty bags of chips, bottles of water and just about anything else they are done using onto the nearest road, sewer or creek. Mounds of stinking trash line almost every road and clog almost every river I've seen in India. The sight and smell is disturbing. Watching yet another Indian throw another piece of garbage onto the street is disgusting in the most literal sense.


So what? Why should people (other than Indians) care if they destroy their own environment? One answer is that India can be a beautiful place, and you might want to come here one day. But the real answer is, of course, there is not a separate Indian environment compared to 'our environment' and the actions taken here have far reaching implications. Lets look at a few:

  • Rivers Flow: All the trash that is being dumped in sewers and blown around the city that ends up in a river doesn't just sit here in Bangalore. The next time that river floods (say with a seasonal monsoon), all that trash gets washed downstream where it will eventually end up in one of the world's oceans. From there it is just a matter of time for that trash to circle the globe on ocean currents, slowly releasing toxins and chemicals that end up in our food and the water that evaporates to form rain and snow (as in, our drinking water).
  • H1N1: Walking past piles of slowly rotting garbage, it is hard to imagine that they are not festering with all kinds of bacteria, viruses and generally nasty stuff. All it takes is one of those things hopping into one person, then another, then a daily non-stop to London or Dubai and we've got ourselves global pandemic. Its probably worth pointing out that the only beneficiaries of the trash are the city cows and pigs (as in, swine).
  • A Mentality: Back in the day when everything was made out of bamboo and coconut leaves, not caring about the environment had pretty minimal effects. Nowadays with plastic everything, not caring about the environment has some fairly serious consequences. In the future, not caring about the environment will have disastrous effects. With a rising middle class and plummeting car prices, India is poised to add millions of cars (and TVs and refrigerators, etc) to the road each year. How can we even start talking about conservation, alternative energy or sustainability when over 1,000,000,000 people cannot fucking throw things away correctly?

What can be done? Unfortunately this doesn't seem like a particularly easy one to solve (and admitted it may not be the most pressing world issue) but there are some things that I think are needed:

  • Role Models: This one is super easy. Don't litter, even cigarette butts. Don't be part of the problem. Talk to those you see that are.
  • Infrastructure: India's government (like all developing governments), needs to remove trash as part of the basic services that it provides to its citizens. This needs to be something more structured than the women pushing carts of trash I see randomly around the city. Given many governments' rather poor record at basic public services, this is not something to hold your breath for. However, a motivated government could easily tax producers or importers of disposable goods to fund the necessary infrastructure. (An interesting point: most developing countries are prodigious recyclers; glass and aluminum are too valuable to throw away)
  • Culture: There is evidently a culture within India that says it is ok to simply throw your trash wherever you see fit. This must change. I think the most effective way to change culture is through education, both formally in schools and informally through the media. This would not be particularly hard, we're not talking about rocket science and even the simple murals Delhi has at street corners seem to be reasonably effective. But to really be effective, this push for change must come from within the existing culture. Despite the soaring readership of this blog, this type of change is not something I can reasonably expect to influence, it must be done by Indians for themselves, and the rest of us.


Mike said...

I heard an interesting solution to this problem that was implemented in a south/east Asian (forget which one)... consequences and taxes.

1. Littering is considered a criminal offense with severe consequences.
2. Trash is picked only if it is a certain trash bag which you have to pay a tax on (think $5 a bag).
3. Recycling bags are free and pickup of the bags is free.

Corinne, Corinnie, Cori said...

Really like this post, Gore. The developing world and their desire to like the consumerist lifestyle is an issue we've been hearing a lot about during this week of orientation at the Nicholas School.

You might be interesting in reading about a project one of my girlfriends (ex-Accenture actually) is working on in Asia -


Hope all is well

Tyler said...

That reminds me a lot of the "broken windows" theory that they talk about in Tipping Point. I have to imagine that the littering mentality spills into many other aspects of the culture. It also reminds me a little bit of Vickers on Sunday where it used to rain solo cups.

Steve said...

I bless the rain down in Vickers?