Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Singapore is becoming a favourite tourist destination for Indians, including Keralites. The outbound tourist traffic is expanding by the day as evidenced by the difficulty in procuring air-tickets to and from there. It seems that the attractions of the closest enclave of first-world civilisation to India is enthralling the tourists from God's Own Country. The skyscrapers, the malls, the Metro and of course, the "spotlessly clean" city.
Usually, the last bit stays with them the most. They spout on and on about how "Singapore roads are so clean that one can lie on them." Nice that they are so positively inspired by the model city-state. All the more pity then that the instant they step out of Trivandrum International Airport, they crumple up and throw wrappers, boarding passes and other assorted trash onto the roads of their own city, without as much as a second thought! And perhaps spit on the sidewalk for effect, before walking to their illegally parked car and discarding the luggage trolley in the middle of the road.
And it is not just Singapore....it is Hong Kong, New York or a dozen other other-worldly places which we regularly hear high praise sung of. And to end it all, the deriding of the home-town when it paints a poor picture in comparison. And there is no denying Trivandrum does not compare favourably with Singapore, New York or Geneva on many counts like quality of infrastructure, affluence, urban cleanliness or lawfulness, even if it manages to beat the pants of many of these ubertropolises in terms of natural beauty and culture.
But who's responsible?
Who litters the streets without a second thought....who takes spitting on the road and smoking in public for granted....who digs up the roads clandestinely at night....who jaywalks and who plasters every available surface with posters advertising every imaginable thing?
Surprise! Yes, the answer is you and me, us, the "fine" citizens of this fair city. Not me, we may say....but how sure are we?
Littering has been with us since we got off the trees, well earlier as well, I bet. The simple thought that dumping something unwanted somewhere that we don't have to clean up is an inviting proposition indeed. So inviting that it makes even the most educated, affluent citizens into litter-bugs. Despite the fact that Trivandrum has one of the best solid waste management systems in India, thanks in great part to the hard-working Kudumbasree teams, one often sees speeding cars - usually high-end cars - drop bags of domestic waste onto roads as if they were Stuka dive-bombers from WWII. I suppose it never occurs to these folk that other people have to walk on and drive over those same roads.
All of us join the cacophony of complaints against pot-holes and other assorted holes on our roads. Why, there are even websites set up by frustrated citizens to highlight this issue. And it is a menace as well, accounting for a non-trivial fraction of the accidents on our roads. The common culprit is supposed to be the unscrupulous contractor and his accomplice, the even more villainous PWD engineer, who together conspire to create poor quality roads. Well poor road construction and the heavy annual monsoons are partly to blame. But if we believe the remaining potholes are the work of gremlins (locally known as vethalams/odiyans!), then it's time we woke up. One may be forgiven for thinking so, especially in light of some holes and trenches which seemingly appear overnight on previously smooth roads. The explanation is much more mundane and even less palatable - this is the handiwork of some of us who decide to cut a corner or two.
Most of these trenches are dug up by people seeking water or sewerage connections and reluctant to pay the fees levied for repair of the road. And these same outstanding citizens grumble and protest vociferously when they run over someone else's trench. At the best of times, the mechanism for repairing dug-up roads is slow, as evidenced by the time taken to repair trenches dug by the KWA or BSNL, where repair costs are mandated. So, when trenches are dug at night with the object of avoiding repair charges, the time taken to repair the damage is often measured in months and dozens of accidents. I wonder how many of these offenders get prosecuted. After all, finding the culprit doesn't require the talents of ol' Mr. Holmes or Ms. Marple, a water or sewerage connection is slightly tough to explain away. When the student protester who breaks the odd windowpane or windscreen is expeditiously charged with the Prevention of Destruction of Public Property (PDPP) Act, why is the same not done to a nocturnal excavator who causes thousands of rupees of direct damage (to the road) and much more in indirect damage (to assorted shock absorbers and spinal columns!). I don't think that the Act will ever be applied in this case, for it will bring storms of protests about excessive punishment and the citizen's freedom - after all, the Right to Dig, is enshrined in the Constitution, right next to the Right to Spit & Litter and the Right to Jay-walk! Similar to the storms of protests over banning public smoking (which probably kills more passive smokers in a year than Hitler managed in his Final Solution.) or for punishing encroachments of public property.
Here we come full circle to Singapore. The most common tee-shirt that is bought as a souvenir from the city is one which states "Singapore is a FINE city!" True, isn't it? Well, if one looks more closely, it is evident that the sentence is bit more than mildly sarcastic, and it in effect refers to the innumerable fines which are levied for things that are concerned mundane in India - spitting, buying chewing gum, littering, peeing in lifts and feeding uncaged monkeys (the last two may be less frequent than the rest, I hope so.).
It is not that one day the fine citizens of Singapore all decided to turn a new leaf and took a resolution never to litter/spit/jay-walk ever again. While the resolution of the populace to transform their city into a first-world enclave was the overarching theme, draconian penalties and strict enforcement were the tools. At one point, Singapore banned the ubiquitous chewing-gum so as to prevent discarded wads of gum interfering with the closure of automatic doors on subway trains. Here is a sample of what you get in trouble in Singapore for and what the penalties are - "selling or importing chewing gum S$1,000 (£370), dropping gum or litter S$1,000, dancing in public S$5,000, skateboarding S$500, smoking in most public places S$1,000, hawking without a license S$500, vandalism S$5,000 and public speaking without a permit S$2,000." So it has been a mixture of the carrot and the stick, and a pretty long stick at that.
Can the same approach be adopted in Trivandrum? The recent protests against the ban on non-recyclable plastic is evidence that the atmosphere is not very conducive. In India, democracy is taken to mean liberty to do as you please. Thus, new rules and the enforcement of rules would come as a rude and unwelcome change to all and sundry. However, history shows that rapid societal change is usually catalyzed through changes in the governing and legal framework. The Marxist revolution, the advent of democracy in the US, the introduction of temple entry in Travancore or the disappearence of chewing-gum from Singapore are all the results of decisive action.
For this, the first step will be strong political will, which in turn will happen only when the interests of the people are impressed upon their representatives. Secondly, a strong enforcement authority is required. Since most of the regulations will pertain to municipal matters, an empowered municipal authority is an ideal monitoring and enforcement agency. The Police may not be the best choice, as these infringements would constitute no more than petty crimes in their scheme of things and thus come at the bottom of their already overworked priority list. Thirdly, all of us need to think twice before we drop a piece of paper or toffee wrapper on the road or park a car right at the foot of the "No Parking" sign.
Fines may not be so bad, in the end. They can help fund a lot of the cash-strapped Corporation's work. By deterring people from committing offences as well as aiding in development work, they will play a dual role.
In the meantime, think twice before you drop that next wrapper on the road and make sure you tell your friend not to do so as well. I have practiced that all my life. It may get you a few wierd looks, but your conscience will be clear and your city a tiny bit cleaner.