Stop the littering!

Geetha Durairajan

This month I want to write about something that bothers me a great deal, something that we ought to be teaching our children as part of every day life; I am sure many of us are teaching, but not enough. For every one child who is taught there are hundred parents who are not doing what they should be doing.

All of you must be wondering what I am talking about. Something very simple, very basic, but essential, a sense of public (common) and private places, and spaces and cleanliness.

Very close to the University where I work there is a lovely landscape garden, with trees, flowers, and lawns. Parents bring their children to play, adults, like me, go there to walk, others to do yoga, and for many old people it is a common meeting place every evening to spend some time amidst greenery and fresh air.

Every once in a while, since there is a small open air stage, the place is used by groups of school or college students, and sometimes by an extended family, as a place for a party. They bring their paper plates and their food, sing, dance, eat and have a merry time and go away. All of them come with many nice things to eat, and go away with their bellies full, but otherwise empty handed, except for their belongings of course, and here is where the problem begins.

The other day, when I was out for an early evening walk on Sunday, I saw this group of students singing and dancing and having fun. They had eaten cake and some other easily servable items of food, I imagine, for the place was dotted in white. By the time I got back from the walk (nearly an hour later) the group had left, but they had left many things behind. Nothing valuable, nothing noteworthy, but things nevertheless. The lawns were littered with paper cups and paper plates and plastic bags! Not one of them had felt the need to clear up before leaving. Maybe they assumed that the guards in the park would do it; maybe they never thought about it or felt that the sweepers would ‘do the needful’ (as the Indian English saying goes) the next day. I have no idea what they thought, but the sight of a verdant green lawn littered with white cups and plates bothered me. Aesthetically, it was ugly, but more importantly, from a public perspective, it was terrible.

Every one of these kids come from homes which have gardens or at least, some space in front of their houses; these children are nearly adults, into tertiary education, but lacked a basic sense of hygiene, cleanliness, and litter, and garbage awareness.

I wondered whether they would do the same in their own homes; whether a birthday party or any other celebration for that matter would end with that house being littered and messed up and whether it is only their parents, or servants who clear up after them! Wouldn’t these children help their parents clear up after a party at home? If they were to live in a hostel, wouldn’t they, at least once in a while, aim to keep their rooms clean?

A “No, they won’t” was not possible as a response to these questions and therefore I could only ask myself:
“What happens to this sense of cleanliness when it comes to public spaces?”

I did not have an answer, but a different image flashed through my mind, a very common sight on our streets. The image was of women sweeping their houses and then stepping out of the house to empty the dust pail with all its gathered dust and dirt on to the road! It was as though three feet away from the house (and sometimes two feet away from the lovely kolam (rangoli) on the street) was no longer private ‘home’ space. It was like no-man’s-land, it belonged to everyone and therefore to no one! In theory we have notions of our locality, our street, our district, our country but when it comes to emptying dust pans, it disappears. Sometimes our sense of ownership and pride stops at the entrance to the house, at the gate as it were.

This sense of public space (not mine, so I can do what I like) is visible everywhere.

We go to theatres to see movies, buy popcorn and coke and… and leave the empty wrappers under our seats.

Do we need to be fined (as in Singapore) to ensure that our public spaces will be as clean as our private spaces? Discipline through punishment is not a viable long-term solution. We need to teach our children that our streets, parks, gardens, districts, theatres, all the spaces we use, whether inside our homes or out on the roads are OURS and that it is our responsibility to keep them clean. What we use, we need to be responsible for; without it our education is not complete.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.