Aghast at the manner in which a youth discarded waste food at the prestigious Koyambedu bus station in Chennai, I gently reminded him that there was a dustbin not so far away, and that he should please put the food only into the dustbin. The youth, just around 23 years or thereabouts, gave me a quick retort: “You should mind your own business old man! This is a public place and I can do what I want. Who are you to question me?”
Being 50-plus in age, I felt miserable for a moment, but before I could take the waste food and put it in the dustbin, a woman in uniform came from behind and removed it. What really hurt was the curt reply and usage of the somewhat derogatory Tamil wordperisu (literally translating into someone quite old).
The youngster's sharp reaction set me thinking. Is there something called “public”, which can be misused at will? At the very same Koyambedu bus station, said to be the pride of Chennai, connecting all cities and towns of Tamil Nadu, and quite a few in other States as well, people are so happy making it dirty. Though I was given to understand that a private party has been entrusted with the job of keeping the place clean, I can quite see the degeneration.
All smokers, more so the very young, smoke in “public” places, as if there is no tomorrow. Children, women, the elders and the sick, who might be very near the smokers, bear it all in silence. Every major bus station in Tamil Nadu has hundreds of people who use them as public toilets, spoiling the environment beyond description. Every place does have the pay and use toilets, but our “public” mentality overtakes even the most basic discipline.
It pains me to see hundreds of citizens spit happily on “public” roads like the prestigious Anna Salai (erstwhile Mount Road) in Chennai and, of course, in every other place in Tamil Nadu. There are “public” places in Karnataka, and in the two other South Indian States that are far better maintained. In fact, temples in Kerala are very well maintained, and the cleanliness makes it so peaceful for one to pray. The sanctity of the temples is not lost as it often is in Tamil Nadu — there are times when I feel ashamed to call myself a Tamilian.
There is no “bus day” celebrated in Hyderabad or Bangalore or Trivandrum or in any other city as in Chennai. The “public” are put to great difficulty, and consequent traffic jams make things worse. Students take the law into their own hands and stone at least quite a few buses on that day. The situation has become so serious that the authorities have decided that there will be no “bus day” next year. One has to wait and see if that will really happen.
Why are we so insensitive about “public” matters? For example, the plastic menace is becoming so horrible that only with enlightened leadership, something better will ever happen. In Kanyakumari district, the use of plastic bags has been banned, thanks to a huge community initiative led by the District Collector. Such initiatives should multiply many times over.
What is there in human nature that makes each of us have one value for ourselves and another for the “public” matters? Why are we so selfish and so heartless?
On the face of it, there is not much of a hope. We are a nation of people, who have become conditioned to bad behaviour. When millions starve, we happily waste food that can feed hundreds or thousands in all marriages. We allow our politicians to encroach on “public” places. We allow ourselves, that is, the “public” to be cheated so routinely by unscrupulous people who promise us better returns than what are offered by banks.
Even if women are abused in “public”, we do not react. We do not have big hearts for the very poor, who are often victims of the misuse of everything that is “public.”
What is the way out? If someone were to start a “public awareness” campaign, and sustain it for a very long time, there can be some change. However, since those kinds of movements can never happen, we should impose discipline. Let flying squads impose a minimum fine of Rs.50 on anyone who makes any “public” place dirty, at any time of the day or night. Let the parents of the students who damage buses, pay in full, for the damages.
Only the fear of punishment will work in our country. Democracy does not give us the licence to do whatever we can in “public” places. When we aspire to become as advanced as the Western nations, we quite often forget that people of those countries are far more disciplined and respect everything that is “public” so very well. The flying squads should be manned by unemployed youth, with at least minimum police protection. In fact, the police should also be empowered to impose the fines.
The time to act is now. Let us put the “public” debate to rest.
(The writer's email is: firstname.lastname@example.org)