Cleaning up India
Posted on 1-September-2014
On the anniversary of India's independence from British Rule on 15th August this year, India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced in an inspiring speech the start of a movement on 2nd October this year to rid India of squalor and filth. It was refreshing to hear an Indian Prime Minister talk of one of the ugliest features of life in India--the ubiquitous presence of garbage, litter, faeces and all manner of other waste in public spaces which most ordinary Indians are blind to but get incensed about if pointed at by a foreigner--and the need to remove it. Narendra Modi's intentions are laudable and he appears to have the capacity and the drive to achieve the goals he sets out to achieve. Yet no matter how he or anyone else wishes to tackle the problem of dirt and squalor in public spaces in India he will have to deal with a deep rooted problem in present day Indian culture which is that a vast number of Indians are indifferent to the dirt they create in public spaces or to the inconvenience they cause to their fellow citizens. People think nothing of cleaning their houses or even places of worship with large quantities of water and letting that water run out to the street and create slush all around. Littering in public spaces is almost universal and blocking all or parts of public spaces for all manner of private purposes is common. Some of the dirtiest places can often be areas surrounding temples or street corner food establishments or bathing ghats of holy rivers.
The problem can be largely dealt with by making laws or rules against dirtifying public spaces and enforcing them relentlessly, uniformly and fairly without making any concession to an enormously large number of self-important people claiming special status for themselves or to those who, when secular laws are applied to places of worship or their surroundings protest saying their religious sentiments are hurt. Much as some liberals might scoff at this emphasis on effective policing, the role of law enforcement in ensuring order in public can never be overemphasised. The American writer Steven Pinker illustrates in two of his books what happens when the enforcers of law suddenly disappear from the scene with the example of one day in 1969 when the Montreal Police went on strike. Here is what he says:
"....I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competitive predictions were put to test at 8 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11.20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty cartloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course the Mounties to restore order."
All this happened in Montreal, one of the most peaceful and orderly cities in the world with a high habitual regard for the law among its citizens. By corollary, strict law enforcement keeps citizens in line--a look at Singapore, Hong Kong or any western city or village will prove the point. By contrast India lags both in law enforcement and in the citizens' respect for the law and for cleanliness and order in public spaces. The answer lies both in effective policing and campaigns of public education and this has to be a sustained and serious effort for as long a period of time as necessary--ridiculous gestures like asking cinema or sports celebrities to stand at street corners on some day and talk of some traffic rule or the other will remain just that, ridiculous. Otherwise Narendra Modi will end up making nothing more than a token move like so many other reformers that have walked the earth in India in its long history.
There is another kind of cleaning up that India needs equally urgently--cleansing its political parties of criminals and of all kinds of law breakers. Very recently someone filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court of India, seeking a ruling against criminals holding offices of government ministers. The Supreme Court declined to rule in the matter but added for good measure that the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers were people in whom the public had reposed their trust and it was their moral responsibility to keep criminals and law breakers from holding public office. Though the Supreme Court of India did not say so, it is evident that some of the responsibility for the presence of criminals in the political class falls on the voters of India, for it is they who elect them. And as in the case of the removal of physical filth, the answer lies as much in the Prime Minister and chief ministers taking moral responsibility for keeping criminals and lawbreakers out of public offices as in motivating the people not to elect such people to various representative bodies.
For the first kind of cleaning the state has the responsibility to ensure law enforcement and effective policing and for the second kind of cleaning the responsibility falls on the heads of government. For both kinds of cleaning campaigns of public education are equally necessary and efforts of the government have to be supplemented by action by private associations of citizens. This is where groups such as the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) which are allied to and supportive of the Prime Minister and his political party can play a very useful and constructive role. Both these groups expend as much of their energies on creating their own mythified, empirically unsustainable versions of Hindu past and talk of Hindu pride and glory as on spreading venom against India's Muslim and Christian minorities. They would be doing their favourite Prime Minister proud by concentrating their energies instead on inspiring their followers to keep their environments clean, to respect the sanctity of public spaces, to cultivate the habit of respecting the rights and convenience of their fellow citizens and to stop voting for criminals and lawbreakers to public offices. If they did that they would build an India that all Indians can be proud of. Would that the Prime Minister used his power and authority to turn groups like the RSS and the VHP in this direction.