"How come?" I wondered, when I recently spotted a used, disposable plastic cup, of a famous yogurt brand, lying on the pavement in my Colombo neighbourhood.
In the last four months that I have been here, I have seldom seen anything synthetic on the roads – no polythene bags being chauffeured around by the breeze, no food packets with rice spilling out, no disfigured mineral water bottles.
Occasionally, I would spot dry leaves popping up on the pavements. And invariably, I would also hear a sort of brushing sound – after a few weeks here, I could recognise the sound even from a distance – it was the conservancy worker’s large, fork-like bamboo broom toiling over the broad concrete pavement.
A middle-aged woman, wearing an orange t-shirt, like many conservancy workers here, would not spare even a single dry leaf. On several days I have seen her mid-morning, and on some days, in the afternoon.
Colombo, as some of my friends had told me earlier, is a city where even a stray piece of trash on the road will surprise you. Cleanliness is only enhanced by the greenery all around.
When my friend, a local journalist, countered my point of view saying, “Oh, that is only the heart of Colombo. It’s meant to be all posh, you know,” I thought that she perhaps knew better.
All the same, from my limited experience of travelling outside Colombo on a few assignments, I feel that the average city or town in Sri Lanka tends to be far cleaner than its Indian counterpart.
I can already hear some of the arguments against what I say – India is a far bigger country, we are grappling with a population of over a billion and conservancy is a greater challenge in such a context. I have no disagreement over any of these.
As someone who has been a Chennaiite all her life, it is interesting to see how this neighbour – just a 50-minute flight away – manages to be so clean.
When it comes to things like cleanliness, public transport or urban sanitation, you usually tend to turn to the West for benchmarks.
When you speak of the Chennai Metro, you are secretly hoping it would be like the London tube network one day. When you speak of doing road trips, one of your friends will tell you how he drove for 14 hours in the States with no sign of fatigue. Similarly, when it comes to how clean a city is, even if we have to consider examples closer to home, we point to a developed country like Singapore.
However, here is a city right next door, with very similar challenges as any other developing South Asian country, that takes its cleanliness very seriously. You may have a million differences with Sri Lanka – for patriotic, political or ideological reasons, but you have to give it to the conservancy agencies here and larger civic sense of citizens for maintaining the city this way.
Not very long ago, a 30-something sales professional I met here, told me that the army personnel – who defeated the LTTE – were heroes of the country. I am not sure I agree with him entirely.
But I do know one hero for sure - the middle-aged woman I spot every morning who, with her broom, coaxes every little leaf on the pavement to step away and make way for the pedestrian.
My Chennai My Right, an inititative by The Hindu
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