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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Ugly Indian

If you ever go to India, one of the first things you will notice as you step out of the airport is the dirt and trash everywhere (along with the sea of people). I love India and love traveling and living there, however one aspect that irks me the most about the cities and even the countryside is the abundance of trash and the lack of care about it from the people. Piles of trash are ubiquitous, plastic bags piled up in corners, clogging up drains, and littering the parks. Sometimes these piles of garbage are burned, releasing black toxic fumes that are not pleasant at all. India did not always used to be dirty; if you look at old pictures the streets are so clean! My parents tell me how clean their neighborhoods used to be when they were growing up, before the infiltration of plastic bags and wrappers. I'm also amazed at the way people litter even when there are trashcans nearby. I was at a new park in Lucknow with my host family and their teenage kids when we decided to get some ice cream. This family was middle class, educated and well to do. Despite these qualities, the typical Indian lack of care for the environment was on full display as the ice cream wrappers fell to the ground without a thought or care. I took mine off and looked around for a trashcan and sure enough there was one ten feet away. It was in the shape of a cartoon bunny with a hole and the words 'use me' stenciled on it. These clever and amusing trash cans can be found all over India, put there by the municipalities to encourage people to throw trash in them. I threw my wrapper away and turned around to see that the others had just flung their wrappers to the ground and were busy talking and gobbling their already melting popsicles. I became upset and kind of yelled at the kids, "why don't you all just throw your wrappers in the trashcan it's right over here." Their response was, "This is India and someone will clean it up." It is this mentality that I encountered over and over again with Indians, like my cousins tossing my banana peel out of a fast moving car and telling me to stop acting so American as I clung onto every piece of trash waiting for a trashcan or proper place to dispose of it. To me it always appears that Indians don’t care about their surroundings and that their cities look like trash dumps. But mind you that Indians are generally not dirty people. Go to their homes and you will find them to be immaculate. However this cleanliness only extends to their persons and the boundaries of their homes, outside and everything else can well go to the dumps!

My question is why do Indians have this mentality and can it be changed? It is this question that a group of Indians are asking of themselves and their fellow neighbors in order to change themselves and their neighborhoods, and eventually their country. The Ugly Indian is an initiative that aims to change the lack of civic duty and mentality of no care of the average Indian. According to their website, Indians are good at blaming others for their problems, the reason the streets are dirty, the road full of potholes, and the sidewalks unwalkable always comes down to some else's fault. It is either the government, the poor people, corruption, etc that creates these problems. There is never an attempt to take ownership of the problem. The Ugly Indian wants to show that things can be changed, streets can be clean, sidewalks walkable, and the neighborhoods orderly. Their website is full of examples of how they tackled specific problems that are often taken for being irreparable, such as men using the wall and the sidewalk as their personal urinal. Since people used the sidewalk and the wall along it as a public urinal, it also became a place to throw trash. Due to this condition pedestrians stopped using it and used the dangerous and already congested streets. There had been attempts to clean it but it always reverted to its disgusting filthy state. The people of The Ugly Indian came up with a strategy; they cleaned it up and painted it white so that it looks even more clean which means that people will be less inclined to urinate there. They painted cute footprints and put potted plants and convinced the cabdrivers who park there to not let anyone use it as their private toilet. According to the website so far it's been kept clean and people are beginning to use the side walk again. In all of their other cases, they were able to involve businesses to care about the spaces right outside their property. Because a few of them actually stepped forward and took initiative there was improvement. If everyone complains and does nothing then obviously nothing will ever be done about it! The strategy adopted by this group of conscientious Indians is a right step towards a better India. There is an Indian campaign that aims to bring this type of change, Tum Chalo to Hindustan Chale which basically means that India can't work without each of us doing our part. India is great and can only become better if everyone decides to take initiative and begins to change their habits and mentality. As a famous Indian once said "be the change............"

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