In 2013, more Indians have access to mobile phones than adequate sanitation facilities. But habits like littering and spitting in the streets are not only unsightly - they can have serious health consequences too.

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Lack of hygiene in India’s public space is not a new occurrence. It has stayed in the country for many generations and continues to grow to this date, without people realizing that keeping their environment clean is a societal obligation.

Although the country has grown in many respects through economy, technology, industrialization and population, cleanliness is an area in which India lags behind. People are inconsiderate towards their public space polluting it in every way possible – from spitting to hurling rubbish materials on the streets. It is not just humans who dirty Indian public spaces: even stray animals who are uncared for such as street dogs and cows use the open spaces for defecating. This makes walking on the streets and on the unpaved footpaths a fraught experience, as we have to be cautious about where we step and whether it is a relatively safe area to step into. Such sanitation problems have generally been ignored, with neither the state nor the citizens accepting responsibility and taking the matter seriously.

Stray cows surrounded with garbage in India (Image:  Matthew L Stevens / Flickr)

Stray cows surrounded with garbage in India (Image: Matthew L Stevens / Flickr)

 Littering on the Streets

Indian cities are filled with waste and garbage materials. As Sriram Vadlamani writes:

“No body in India thinks that litter is a problem at all. Majority of Indians are used to throwing trash on the road. In fact, Indian roads double up as parking spaces, trash cans, temporary storage for construction materials, and free loading docks for enterprises.”

Popular sites in the country such as beaches, rivers and monumental sites are equally littered with plastic and other waste materials. Even with dustbins available on sites, people prefer to litter the streets as there is no proper waste disposal strategy in the country. The roads are cleaned manually which becomes a difficult task to achieve, given the size of the population and the amount of litter on the streets.

Street filled with litter in Srinagar, India (Image: artist in doing nothing / Flickr)

Street filled with litter in Srinagar, India (Image: artist in doing nothing / Flickr)

The use of plastic, steel and other non-biodegradable products have had tremendous impact on the country’s environmental degradation and litter problem. Although the use of plastic bags is being banned in some cities, littering habits have not changed among the population and plastic is still being used by most of the population as a cheaper alternative to biodegradable products. Such habits are not just a concern because of cleanliness but are also very harmful for the environment. An article from the Department of States of Science and Technology in India states:

“As conventional plastics are persistent in the environment, improperly disposed plastic materials are a significant source of environmental pollution, potentially harming life. The plastic sheets or bags do not allow water and air to go into earth which causes reduction in fertility status of soil, preventing degradation of other normal substances, depletion of underground water source and danger to animal life. In the seas too, plastic rubbish – from ropes and nets to the plastic bands from beer packs -choke and entangle the marine mammals.”

However, there is a legislation being passed to ban the use of non-biodegradable products and to impose fines for littering, but it has not come into serious effect. The state environmental secretary, RPS Kahlon, has stated that “We do not have any legal provision against plastic littering. But eventually, we have to enact a law so that an offender does not get away by throwing plastic bags and sachets. Spot-fines could be introduced to penalize offenders.” As the number of ‘offenders’ are large, with the habit of littering very prominent among Indian people, it makes it an uphill struggle to achieve.

Other Sanitation Problems

There are a number of other sanitation problems which dirty the streetscapes of India apart from littering. This includes spitting, using public spaces for toiletry needs as a result of the lack of good public toilets.

“the entire Indian population has greater access to mobile phones than toilets”

It is a somewhat paradoxical fact that “the entire Indian population has greater access to mobile phones than toilets” as reported by United Nations. This lack of public toilet facilities and unclean facilities inside public toilets, results in people using open street spaces for toiletry needs.

Professor Jayati Ghosh from JNU admits that:

“Sanitation remains our worst concern. India is the least improved country when it comes to access to proper sanitation. In some places, modern toilets have been set up but they have no water. We have the largest population in the world that defecates in the open.”

Nearly 60% of Indians are found to defecate in public as a result of lack of proper toilet facilities. The need for public toilets is a matter that requires urgent attention but lack of infrastructure and strains in economy has caused inaction and even indifference towards maintaining proper public facilities in the country.

Dirt and Spit surrounding the wall in Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Image: artist in doing nothing / Flickr)

Dirt and Spit surrounding the wall in Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Image: artist in doing nothing / Flickr)

Spitting on the streets is another habitual Indian concern. Although in the West it is considered rude and a social taboo, in India it has become socially acceptable. It is not only visually unpleasant to see, but can spread bacterial diseases and is a major health concern of which most of the population is unaware.

As Sharell from Culture Shock in India states:

“Apart from spitting being an unsightly habit, the main problem is that it can spread disease. This is a particular concern, as an incurable strain of tuberculosis (which is transmitted via droplets released when an infected person spits, coughs, or sneezes) has been identified in India.”

It is therefore important to educate the Indian population about the harmful effects of spitting, and take relevant action against it.

Overall, such research clearly illustrates that Indian public spaces are poorly maintained. As the population in India continues to grow into the billions, with economic limitations, it has been difficult for Indians to give particular attention to their outside environment. Sanitation problems such as litter, lack of public toilets and spitting on the streets are a growing concern which hinders not only the quality of the environment but also the global image of Indian society as a whole.