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A British friend who returned to India from England recently noted that the neighbourhood streets look a lot cleaner than when she was last here a year ago. I looked around me. Do they? Yes indeed they do!

And that’s because Pune city has acquired a new beast. I call it the garbage guzzler, and it rolls around the unevenGarbage Guzzler roads looking like half a white elephant, its trunk being a huge gooseneck pipe that a bloke in full uniform complete with nose mask uses to vacuum up the rubbish. Someone cares at last!

It turns out that person is Adar Poonawalla, a man who describes himself on his Clean City Initiative website as a proud Indian whose pride “takes a hit” when he “looks at our streets and roads compared to those of other more developed nations.” He has invested almost 100 crore rupees (US$11 million) in waste management designed to cover over half the city of Pune.

Namasté to you, Mr Poonawalla! You have lived up to your name!

Are we indifferent?

Rubbish being hoovered upThe problem with street trash has not only been a lack of decent street cleaning initiatives, though. It has a lot to do with what the eye simply no longer consciously sees. Desensitised by a lifetime frequenting refuse-strewn public spaces, we have become impervious to other peoples’ waste.

This is waste that’s no longer made only of paper and other natural materials. Within easy memory, all items discarded on the Indian streets were at least organic in nature, and would thus decompose relatively rapidly. Now they no longer have such a short life. In the dust and rain, stuff blows in the wind to awkward corners where it gets irretrievably trapped, and there it stays for eternity – sweet papers, liquor bottles, plastic cups, KFC packs, you name it…an unending stream of disposable matter that finds itself at people’s feet on a daily basis.

Our cultural divides

If this does come from social unawareness, that unawareness probably derives from certain cultural divides. And these divides vacillate between caste expectations and religious beliefs…

These are huge subjects, far too complex to go into in depth here, even if I were capable of it. But Osho might point out that the Hindu belief in reincarnation, in many lives – in each of us being on a huge continuum of spiritual endeavour over thousands of years – specifically affects our here-and-now life. In this belief system, this life is mere maya, ‘illusion’, and ours is a transient voyage from one existence to another. So giving it and its worldly attributes any importance, making it either beautiful or efficient or productive, is, on some deep unconscious level, a waste of energy.

Whereas the western, Christian-based mind lives only one life and is constantly in a hurry and always keen to improve the material world around, the easy-going, undemanding Indian mind accepts the vagaries of material life in all its forms. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, ugly and beautiful, it does not discriminate or judge in the compulsive competitive way the western mind does.

And, you could argue that, as much as anything else, that would be about its trash-strewn streets.

Bollywood’s beauty

However, what if the myth of Indian squalor includes a submerged longing to live in a clean, nurtured environment like those so white-washingly portrayed in her beloved Bollywood movies? (Bollywood films, apparently for fear of giving too much away about how some of our environments here look on-screen, ship whole film crews to the Swiss Alps or Parisian gardens to better evoke the perfect scenario for dazzling dance routines and impossible love stories.)

While Indians are very big on respect for their own family and its living space, the civic sense, the communal cooperation taken to some extent for granted in most European countries, seems largely absent here. For many social reasons, the family and its home form a close-knit universe, protected by thousands of years of tightly woven convention. Immediately beyond the front yard, a form of no-man’s land begins, a territory seemingly to be traversed as quickly as possible without obstruction. What you do on it is your affair, not subject to the constraints within the sacred space that is your home. Spit, pee and poo – or offload your garbage – anything goes.

One of the exceptions to this attitude to dirt is the enthusiastic table cleaning you encounter in all restaurants, both the posh ones and the local dhabas. When you are in an eating establishment, expect to enter to an array of sparkling table tops, and to have your dirty plate whisked away from you as soon as you have put down your spoon.

Contrary to English pubs and cafes, where used cups and screwed-up juice boxes remain on the table for hours after the clients have left, Indian restaurants are scrupulously clean – at least the table-tops are. What goes on in the kitchen, I avoid investigating!

Personal hygiene

The tropical climate and Hindu rituals demand levels of personal hygiene and cleanliness that are stricter than in most places. Indians shower daily, if not more often, and assuming they can afford them, wear clean clothes daily too, regardless. Whereas in my own (cold) British childhood decades ago, we bathed weekly and washed our hair monthly (yes, shocking!). In a survey carried out as recently as 10 years ago, British men were found to change their underwear on average once every three days. On average!

Cleanliness comes in all shapes and sizes!

Even so, despite the apparent indifference to squalor, it is clear that there are many who are aware of the degraded environment in which they live and who would like to improve it.

Mr Poonawalla’s “streets and roads…of other more developed nations” expresses a hidden longing of those whose wallets have been fattened by India’s massive growth of the past 20 years, and who have use their increased wealth to travel overseas and seen how others do it.

The Tree-protection gang

So there are, perhaps increasingly, striking exceptions to this general lack of engagement in the aesthetic of shared spaces.

Not long ago on my daily walk in the main road close by – a busy, car-choked thoroughfare – I encountered an old friend, and infrequent visitor, German artist Ekin. She was crouching on the ground beside an infant tree that was encircled in a tall chicken-wire fence. What on earth was she up to?

As I approached, I got a clearer picture… There she was, leaning into the caged sapling, plucking the miniature liquor bottles, biscuit wrappers, plastic cups, bits of string, discarded flip-flops, flattened boxes and cigarette packets that had mounted up to eye-level around it. This is a woman who has not lived in this neighbourhood for a very long time, someone who is leaving in four days and probably won’t be back for another year.

I like to beautify wherever I go in whatever way I can,” she said, and pulled out another strip of ripped plastic covered in an unidentifiable smear of grease. “This young tree does not deserve to be treated as a wastepaper basket!”

I was impressed.

But when she came round for tea a day or so later, the story got much more interesting!

She told me that while she was working away at her lone task on that busy street, a young man approached and offered to help. It was tricky, sitting on the pavement tiles, extracting huge bits of garbage through tiny chicken-wire holes. But there was no other way to reach it.

The pair worked together for a bit and then a second young man came to join them, not connected to the first. Now there were three of them. They all stayed, kneeling on the ground, reaching in through each of the awkward gaps of wire netting, tugging at trash until the job was done.

There was even a serendipitous moment when they had completed the task and everything was laid out on a huge plastic mat on the pavement and they were puzzling as to how to dispose of it… As they stood there wondering where it could all go, a truck appeared, dragging the garbage-collecting skip behind it. Not only did it appear among the moving traffic but it happened to slow down right where they were standing, near enough to enable them to swing it all inside and bid it goodbye.

To me, all this was nothing short of a miracle.

It’s not my job!

Has any awareness of this been quashed by a thousand years of differentiation about who in the social order is responsible for doing what? It’s not my job! is a constant if unspoken refrain in all reaches of Indian life. And once an item has found its way onto the ground, however polished a palatial marble floor it may be, it is the job of the lower caste cleaner alone, not even the person who dropped it there, to pick it up.

Even so, as it turns out, those better off who have returned from visits to the West, like Adar Poonawalla, know how a clean street might feel. And how it might look.

Or perhaps: how it might not look.

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