November 21, 2013
India is rich in texture, beauty, and history but along with that abounds a serious litter problem. As reported in this Eco Essay by contributor Amy Fleming, litter is everywhere from the roadsides to the historic palaces and trash barrels are hard to find. When looking below the surface of the issue however, Fleming observes that it may be that the “Keep India Beautiful” campaign is just starting. That much like the United States prior to the start of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign in the 1950s, people just haven’t made a habit, yet, of disposing of refuse responsibly.
Before traveling to India for the first time, I of course had heard much about its poverty, slums, and beggars. I can report with relief, that while visiting various parts of the country – from Delhi down to Bangalore, I was not often approached by beggars. There were children and adults alike aggressively trying to sell us souvenirs at the major tourist sites, but thankfully no “Slumdog Millionaire”-type maimed children to make us feel even worse about being privileged tourists. There were slums, to be sure, right next to sleek and gleaming modern office buildings, hotels, and shopping malls. (Slums, curiously, with lots of satellite dishes protruding from the corrugated metal roofs of the shanties.) There were whole families to be seen camping on roadway median strips, and under highway overpasses. Laundry was hung, cooking fires and pots stirred right out in these open places. Plenty of people slept on sidewalks at night. I suppose I expected that, along with the picturesque, vivid colors of sari-clad women, ancient architecture of jaw-dropping beauty, and sumptuous palaces from the Maharajah’s Mughal era.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the litter everywhere. Endless litter along the roadway as we rode in cars, along the gutters as we walked on sidewalks, and most startling for me, litter around the grounds of the breathtaking World Heritage Sites we visited. I couldn’t understand it. Where was their pride? Places of incredible beauty and historical significance, and people couldn’t be bothered to put their garbage in the trash receptacles? At each wondrous palace, fort or temple we visited, the vast majority of the visitors were Indians. We “whites” were so rare, Indians continually came up to us asking to be photographed with us on their smartphones and cameras. This was the citizenry fouling their own special places. I looked around – were there indeed trash barrels? I remember when visiting Jerusalem years ago, I was frustrated by the lack of trash barrels in public places. I don’t know if it was urban legend, but we were told trash barrels are purposely not out on the streets there – too tempting a place for a terrorist to deposit a bomb and walk away. This was not the situation in India. Surely some of it was a case of Indians not following rules – something we had heard about, and I saw firsthand in a museum in Mumbai: Indian visitors in the galleries putting their hands on ancient statues despite signs that stated, “Please don’t touch,” and Indians walking through a door labeled, “No Entrance.”
Upon contemplation, I realized India isn’t unlike where the U.S. was when I was a young child, and the nation needs to go through the revolution we did all those years ago. I remember a very visible public campaign, to “Keep America Beautiful.” For those not old enough to remember, Keep America Beautiful was founded in the 1950s as a collaboration among government and non-profit agencies, corporations, and private citizens to reduce littering along our roadways and other public spaces. Billboards by the highways proclaimed the message. Previously, we Americans casually tossed candy and ice cream wrappers out the car window. Pull tabs from aluminum soda cans were as ubiquitous as cigarette butts all over our sidewalks and beaches. Not to mention cleaning up after our dogs – that came later, and was also something about which we had to educated, reconditioned. Hard to believe now, but we had to be taught to dispose of our litter responsibly.
I also observed that there is some method to the madness with litter in India – mounds of trash are swept up along the street and left to provide fodder for the many cows (and dogs) that languorously roam the streets, as they calmly pick through piles, munching the edibles to be found. It’s a symbiotic arrangement, one wonderfully practical example of recycling.
India is a wondrous place. It’s vibrancy and beauty makes me long for the next I visit even as I write about the less pleasing issues the country currently faces. There are surprises on every corner not to be overshadowed by the challenges presented here.
Before we left India, to our delight, we finally came upon an encouraging sign – literally – at the intricately carved 10th century Saas Bahu temples in Nagda, Rajasthan. The seeds are being planted; may its people keep glorious India beautiful.
Photos courtesy of Amy Fleming
The author is a contributor to Eco News Network. The information and opinions in this essay are those of the author.