When Similarities End…Starting With Cleanliness

The first thing that strikes you when you exit the airport is the bright sunshine without the humidity and the cool breeze without the cold. It feels a bit like Mumbai, but without the clamminess and the perspiration that make the summer months so painful as against the glorious sunshine in Beirut that makes you want to be outdoors all the time.

Sometimes it is best not to have read up about the place in advance. Virtually all reviews mention that the taxi-drivers in Beirut as in most other countries charge whatever they want, once they know you are a tourist. While that may be true to some extent, the fact is that you have to be careful with cab drivers wherever in the world you are, including Mumbai. The first one we met was jovial, a little too talkative and came on so strong about wanting to drive us around the city that we instinctively said no…eventually we found out that he was going to charge us the same amount as the others…we were just prejudiced from the beginning!

Beirut is still re-building itself and for us Indians, is extremely affordable. The buildings are a mixture of the old and new, but unlike our rent-controlled decrepit ones, even the old buildings here show signs of care. Most importantly, the roads are well maintained despite whatever issues they may have, the surroundings are clean, despite the occasional homeless person or beggar and the Beirutis are proud of their city and country. Here and there, we still see the after-effects of the Civil War that ravaged the country from 1975-1990, but people seem to have put this behind them to quite an extent.

Because of the French influence, the city is an amazing blend of modernity and conservatism. Tight clothes, but fully covered, extensive make-up, but with head scarves and a lot of French, along with Arabic.

Some things make you feel at home…the traffic and the insane driving, but with a little less honking, and people crossing the road wherever and whenever they feel like. And yet, like in so many other cities including poorer ones like Nairobi or equivalent ones like Cape Town, the squalor is minimal, the roads are clean and the people are polite to a fault.

I have never tried to equate Mumbai with other major cities in the world like New York, London, Singapore or for that matter even Shanghai. It would be like comparing chalk to cheese or apples to oranges.

The problem with Mumbai hits you when you land up in cities that seem comparable but despite their financial constraints, manage to remain clean and the people by and large, polite.

So what is it that makes us continue to throw garbage out of the window, food out of the car, spit on the streets and urinate and defecate everywhere! I do not want to sound like a stuck record in my column revisiting this issue again and again. Yes, we have poverty and over-population and infrastructure constraints. But that’s not the issue…even other cities like Nairobi for example, have similar problems, but somehow are cleaner and neater.

There is something intrinsic in us that abhors cleanliness around us. I don’t know what it is, but it is cultural and hard-wired into our genes. The behavior can be changed as happens when we migrate abroad, but when in India, whether we are locals or NRIs, we revert to our original state.

Is there some sociologist or geneticist who can shed some light on “why we are like thees only?


  • Dr. Rahul Navalkar wrote:

    I completely agree with everything you say in this article except for a line from the second last para… The behav­ior can be changed as hap­pens when we migrate abroad, but when in India, whether we are locals or NRIs, we revert to our orig­i­nal state.

    This is not completely true. Just visit the Indian part of Singapore or Jackson Heights in NYC and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Anywhere that Indians get together there is squalor.

    My theory is that Indians consider cleaning up to be menial labor, something beneath them.
    Secondly we have an intrinsic abhorrence of rules. Give us one and we’ll break it and show. In today’s India breaking rules and getting away with it denotes power … whether traffic rules or civic rules.

  • Armaity Surendra Patel wrote:

    Dr.Navalkar’s last para is right to the letter “T”! We, Indians, need a policemen all the way, at the bus queues, cinema lines, toilet lines, crossing at crossroad signs, jumping the signals, driving in the wrong direction or in the No Entry lane, urinating everywhere, throwing garbage randomly, spitting, etc. The list is endless. So at every nook and corner policing is required. Well in the days of the Emergency most of the above was under control, even the bank staff used to come on time and chai-pani breaks were not so frequent!!!
    We are trying to literate the people without educating them! Thus education is lacking, education in cultural values, respect for elders, cleanliness, hygiene of mind and body, etc, etc,.
    To stop the urinating nuisance, we should keep hidden loudspeakers at such points where the frequency is too much. At an interaval of 5 to 10 mts there should be a loud command from the loudspeakers “Hey You, stop urinating or I’ll call the police” This might jolt them and embrace them. If this does not work we are too. too shameless lot!

  • Dr. K. Daiya wrote:

    I found Dr. Navalkar’s points pertinent; I also think that some aspects are infrastructural in India, like the lack of clean public toilets (esp. for women, as compared to for men) that the NYTimes did a story about late last year. Yet other things seem to be related to caste and class, the idea that some of us are “above” menial labor, as it is seen as a job for certain lower castes or “servants.” Finally, I think what is also at stake is a different idea of one’s civic responsibility (or lack thereof) for the space outside one’s home. Hence one of my Jain neighbors who washes their flat’s floors with copious amounts of water, which dirty water they then let drain into the building compound from the 2nd flr via holes in their walls EVERY morning, with complete disregard for how this dirties their own building compound, encourages mosquitoes, inconveniences others living in the building who might be passing to and fro! The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has written about the problematic treatment of garbage in India.

  • mahadeo bhide wrote:

    Your observations are right Bhavin, but aren’t you being a bit harsh in your judgement about Indians being hardwired slobs? Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate that others can do such things as well.

    Notting HIll Carnival is considered fun by most, except the regular residents of the area. They have hell on those 2 days -lots of defecation and urination on their door-steps. The provisions are simply overwhelmed by the 2 million odd happy people that gather there. Glastonbury is no different- people relieve themselves in what can be described as gay abandon.

    I guess Mumbai has a problem in being over-populated and it’s facilities overwhelmed. If we can address that will be fine. I hope.

    About being polite, i have a theory that if people are happy or at least content with their lives, they tend to be polite. More rude people have unsorted problems of their own. We talk of Europeans being polite, but there is a gradient within them. Londoners are seen to be quite rude by the northerners. Same is true about Parisians, being ruder than their compatriots from the less prosperous areas. I guess those from Mumbai are even more dis-satisfied with their lives as compared to the Londoners and Parisians!

  • H.L. Chulani wrote:

    We may bathe twice daily but throw the bath water into our neighbors compound- as you said we are like that only! Cause? Absence of pride in ourselves or perhaps false pride!

  • Not all of India is unclean – Kerala is the cleanest place in India. The average Malayali spends considerable amount of time cleaning his house and surroundings.

  • raymond fernandes wrote:

    Spot on Dr.Jankharia, every line in the column reflects India as it is… also agree with the first two comments – have not been able to go thro the others – and yes indeed it has been an enigma to me as to why we are this way… try walking on the Marine drive and watch the pan spewing , garbage flinging so called educated class – forget the migrant labour, with their imbibed from birth habits – our own are as depressing….

  • V.Subramanian wrote:

    It many not be all that surprising, if some of us do press for constitutional amendments through our elected representatives, for the ‘Right to Litter”, “Right to be Snobbish” “Right of one-upmanship” “Right to park the way we want”. We relish our “Vitthal’s Bhel”,Lakhan’s Khatta Meeta,Ram Ashrya’s idli,Magroo’s Paan. We would spare no efforts to park our vehicles as close to these vendors as we possibiliy can. We would spit out of the car windows and wash our hands and mouth, sitting in our vehicles. We need all the convinience in the world and why not since we can easily afford them. Do we really care for cleanliness? How much time and what efforts do we take to ensure that our environs are clean? When in Singapore, my cousin proudly told me that there are no crows in Singapore, since there is nothing to scavenge. We Indians can be proud of creating a new “service” called Rag Picking and providing employment to thousands of needy.We have allowed ourselves to multiply,completely oblivious of the socio-economic realities.The wide economic disparity ensures that we have delegated to our servants the resposibility to “Clean”.

  • Amit Choudhury wrote:

    Having visited many major cities all over the world,I totally agree with Bhavin that Indians believe that they have a God given right to inflict their filth and manners on others.Listen to the loud hawking noises on the streets of Mumbai and its clear that expulsion of body fluids in public is considered a cultural heritage.The littering of bottles and packets in public parks and roads is a right,notwithstanding the presence of litter bins.The refusal of dog owners to pick up their pets poo (btw I pick up my mine) from public roads,because it is beneath their dignity,is a national trait.Finally,much against popular belief and hindi cinema,we are not a warm,polite and hospitable people.The rude and indifferent stares I receive from some of my close neighbours,even face to face in the same lift or on a walk is incredible,considering that we live in close proximity and a greeting or a smile really costs nothing.”Excuse me” and “Sorry” are words never to be uttered by most.So whats the solution????Sadly, I dont think there is any.

  • Ganesh Parameswaran wrote:

    As a rule, we are not at peace with ourselves, we do not respect (or have stopped respecting) our past, our elders, our heritage and ourselves, we have stopped believing in ourselves, we have given up ourselves to fate, we do not help ourselves and wait for someone else to come along and control/guide us. In short, we are negative people. We have become inward and utterly selfish. Lack of civic sense and cleanliness is a reflection of this state. If I am right, then we have the areas to work on.

  • Ganesh Parameswaran wrote:

    I may like to add that we do not have the culture of preservation (or have lost it). Look at our temples. Magnificently built by the earlier generations and ill maintained now. Even new structures that we use everyday are left without any worthwhile maintenance.

    Speaking about temples, I had been to Varanasi a few months ago and found the Hindu temples (with the exception of Ramakrishna Mission temple and the Birla Mandir) to be dirty. At nearby Sarnath, the vihara was looking clean. I have mostly found the churches to be clean. My colleague, my sister and I (all Hindus) agree that Hindus lack civic sense. I welcome debate and rebuttals.

  • Ravi Jain wrote:

    Sad part is everyone understands n agrees to the above article but nobody want to do anything…!

  • Agree with Dr.Rahul Navalkar totally. We somehow don’t believe in self discipline. It has to be imposed with a threat – esp. fines. That is the only language we understand. I don’t agree that we are a nation of culture and values. Wearing a Saree, falling at elders’ feet then going out and spitting on the road is not culture. Culture and values can be found all over the world. Attitude and Discipline have no place in our society. I am a South Indian. Even a temple is not free of this indiscipline. People almost kill to get the Prasad and then drop it all over the place while eating it. A darshan without getting pushed and kicked is impossible. I have tried telling people in different ways about a lot of things. But all I get is a nasty look. Mr.Ravi Jain nobody can do anything to teach grown ups discipline if they do not have the right attitude.

  • Probably breaking out of epidemics in very dirty cities is the only thing that will force our’ hard nut to crack Indian civic sense’ To change. Surat was one of the most dirtiest cities before Plague visited them. After loosing thousands of precious lives , some awareness crept in and fear of death has made it one of the cleanest cities today.
    We Indians fall for free bees In hoards! The govt can announce free of cost incentives for maintaining one’s area/colony clean , for rainwater harvesting, for garbage sorting etc. for eg. Water tax can be waived for these responsible citizens.etc.

  • Spitting and throwing things and garbage around leads to squalor and dirty surroundings. Unfortunately, we Indians, by and large excel at these dirty habits.
    I have seen that in foreign lands, we dutifully stand in “Q”s” but in India, we excel in breaking lines unless we are ” policed”. This happens to all aspects of our lives. I have never understood why ??

  • Bombay is cleaner now than five years back,,,and will get better. Young people are getting aware of the need of cleaner surrounding.

  • Mehroo Kharegat wrote:

    Your last para hits the nail on the head and reminds me of a remark made many moons ago by a Gujerati friend of my Father. He said “We have only one religion in India – keep your house clean and throw the garbage into your neighbour’s’. Yes we have all seen this change of attitude when our people are abroad and I have earlier written on the subject. There is no sense in quoting examples. When I reprehend someone, I get raised eyebrows and replies like ‘this is not London’ or the latest from an owner driven Merc ‘What are we paying the BMC for?’
    However there could be a solution (if that is possible)and that is Strict discipline which I am afraid lacks in our country. First it should be instilled in our police force – people should not feel they will get away and that a dip in the pocket will solve the issue. After all how did the people in the Gulf learn? School children should be taught strictly the meaning of cleanliness so they start instilling it in their homes as well.
    Lastly Good Luck to ALL who try as success is not what I anticipate.

  • We are the greatest contiguous UN-Civilisation on Earth. Even sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh have better hygiene and civic sense than the common Indian. Mumbai is especially nothing but one large open-air toilet.

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