A Nation of Litterbugs: Why Swachh Bharat Will Always Remain an Unfulfilled Dream


A Nation of Litterbugs: Why Swachh Bharat Will Always Remain an Unfulfilled Dream

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Going on a slum tour was the first thing on the to-do list of my American friend, who was visiting Mumbai for the first time. Like most firangs and Oprah, she’d seen Slumdog Millionaire, and had heard all about the largest slum in the world. Like most locals, I protested.

There is more to my city, I stressed, and what’s with this stereotyping anyway? I wasn’t so deluded as to think that the slum didn’t exist or that there was anything wrong with visiting it – I was just irritated with this fluffy uni-dimensional view of Mumbai as some sort of chaotic mess where moments of inspiration and beauty were just strewn across the street, waiting to be gleaned. Determined to change her mind, I wanted to show her the side of our spirited city that locals like us take immense pride in, pretty Colaba and the historic Fort area.

It turned out that my friend was far more insistent than I was.

On our way to the slum, we passed an open heap of garbage, a filthy beach, a traffic snarl amid which a fist fight was erupting, public toilets that stank like… well public toilets, and a chaotic train station where people stood with elbows locked, ready to start a war. In between all this, our rickshaw driver enthusiastically played a selection of Bollywood item numbers out loud and spat out paan at regular intervals – as did the folks driving SUVs that belong in Transformers. My friend witnessed all of this with the amazement of a teenager thrust into a mafia movie.

At the end of the ride, she suggested that maybe we should head for Colaba instead. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the journey there would hardly be any different.

No wonder, a nation that is 70 years old has to be told by its leader, time and again, to keep Bharat swacch.

It is no secret that India is home to some of the dirtiest cities in the world. Fourteen of the world’s 15 most polluted cities are in our country, a WHO report recently pointed out. What is astonishing, though, is not that we lack civic sense – blame it on our lack of education and wilful ignorance – but that we have the wit to counter it with some classic whataboutery: “Dude, no country is perfect, okay. What about gun crimes and racism in America?” or “Even Hong Kong has slums.”

We’ve all seen perfectly well-turned-out, English-speaking people chuck empty packets of Lay’s out of their fancy cars. Two years ago, in Mumbai’s Bandra, a man was beaten up for calling out litterbugs in a BMW. The assaulters were supposedly educated, “woke millennials” in their 30s.


It’s time to learn from Mawlynnong, a small village in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, routinely touted as the cleanest in Asia.

Image Credits: BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images

The fact is that we do know better, but we just refuse to believe that cleanliness is our problem. It is almost always the problem of the government, or civic body or the “activist types”. Isn’t this their job after all? No wonder, a nation that is 70 years old has to be told by its leader, time and again, to keep Bharat swacch – with the help of a massively expensive campaign.

This attitude that cleaning up after ourselves is the job of someone else, begins at home with our children. Meet Pratik, a seven-year-old who lives in my housing society. Pratik’s house has five members and a full-time maid. His doting mother ensures that children have no role to play in taking any responsibility of the house. Spilled food on the floor? No problem, the maid will clean it. Left the fan on while leaving the room? Don’t worry, mama will switch it off. Dirty clothes lying around the room? Grandma will put them in for a wash.

See the pattern here? Since childhood, children are taught that it is not their job to keep the house clean or worry about being wasteful. Because there is always someone else to take care of it. We litter because we believe it’s the BMC’s job, or that of good citizens like Afroz Shah, to keep the streets clean for us. Why would such a child bother walking 50 metres to put rubbish inside a litter bin?

Pratik is made to skip social-science projects, so he can catch up on his math tuition, which will eventually enable him to get a good degree, earn well, and buy a fancy car. No one has told him that he is not supposed to roll down the window of that car and throw a Coca-Cola can on the street.

Like a majority of people in India, Pratik will be literate without really being educated, or “padhe-likhe ganwaar” as my grandparents say. He will grow up to be a young man who will hate queues and cut into them because he is taught that his time is more valuable than those of others. He will have money to own brag-worthy dogs and take them for a walk, but not the decency to pick up the poop and dispose it in the bin.

If the lack of cleanliness in your surroundings is an inevitability for some of us, for the rest it is due to a sense of privileged entitlement.

Maybe it’s time to learn from other parts of the country. Mawlynnong, a small village in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, is routinely touted as the cleanest in Asia. How did that happen? Because the people banded together; because cleanliness is everyone’s responsibility. Such is their civic consciousness, that people routinely pick up any garbage they find and throw it in bins that are everywhere.

It’s a small thought but a potentially nation-altering one. If we want to see a change let’s teach the next generation to pick up after themselves, instead of posing with brooms on social media.