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Why are we such litterbugs?

Singapore became an independent country in 1965, about 20 years after India. In a few decades, it went from a being a Third World country to a developed first-world country. The architect of this transformation was Lee Kuan Yew, who served as its PM from its birth in 1965 to 1990. This is all the more remarkable because Singapore has no natural resources to speak of, and has to depend on neighbouring Malaysia even for drinking water (while in India, even neighbouring States cannot reach an amicable settlement on sharing river waters). Today, the country has the third highest per capita income in the world (higher than the U.S., Japan, and countries of western Europe), and boasts of having the world’s number one airline.

Singapore is not some small homogeneous country. It has people of diverse religions, languages, races, and culture living together in peace: Chinese, Malays, and Indians; Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Mainly because LKY realised the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and racial harmony, and was ready to use the law to counter any threat that might incite ethnic and religious violence. banarasibanarasi saribanarasi paanbanarasi zari

When LKY visited New Delhi in the 1960s, he saw that the two places were quite similar in terms of (lack of) cleanliness and litter. He realised that people are inherently dirty, and you need draconian laws if you want to keep a place clean. That is why throwing waste paper or plastic anywhere in Singapore will attract a fine of $200, no arguments. Chewing gum is banned; in fact even sale is punishable. That is the price you have to pay if you want a clean place, which I am sure most Indians want. And litter and open garbage is the underlying reason for stray dog menace in India; there are no stray dogs in Singapore, or any developed country for that matter (and in Kerala in India). On a recent trip to Singapore, our guide told us that there is a local place where, for a fee, you can go in and litter to your heart’s content, get your litter fix so to speak! And it is quite popular among Singaporeans.

Contrast this with India. People chew paan and all the time, spit the “cud” in the most unhealthy manner, throw gutka wrappers everywhere — in short, make the surroundings intolerably dirty. There is not a single tourist spot that I have gone to which is not dirty with plastic non-biodegradable litter, notwithstanding the ad campaign by Aamir Khan. And despite there being laws against it, or explicit signs asking people not to litter.

Before you think that this is the work of illiterates, let me assure you that the literate ones are the worst offenders. I was recently visiting the Qutub Minar complex in Delhi. Three college students — one girl and two boys — casually flung an empty plastic water bottle against a wall inside. Watching this with my young daughter, I told them: “Can’t you read the signs saying that what you are doing is prohibited? Is this the example that you want to set for youngsters?” Their response: “Who are you to tell us the rules?” And they made no attempt to pick up the bottle.

In the same trip to Singapore, I also stopped on at the beautiful Andaman and Nicobar islands. Plastic is completely banned here because it is fatal to the ecologically sensitive coral reefs. And the ban is followed religiously on the main islands. Anything you buy is given in biodegradable bags. Despite the ban, one of the popular side islands has lot of beach kiosks that serve tea in small plastic cups. But there are lots of dustbins to throw the used cups. I saw a young couple, wearing designer clothes, finishing their tea and throwing the plastic cups on the open beach. When the nearest dustbin was just 10 feet away. I am sure the same people would find a dustbin in Singapore because the fine for littering there is so huge.

I have a simple solution to all this. First, you catch the offenders using CCTV cameras. Then, instead of a fine, the punishment is to pick up the trash and clean up the place. And this exercise should be taped and displayed prominently, in the form of photographs or video, so that future offenders are deterred. It is amazing how the shame and embarrassment of being seen like this works as a deterrent. That is why the punishment for many petty crimes in the U.S. is so many hours of community service, including removing trash thrown on the highway.

I know, deep down, most Indians are honest law-abiding citizens. Because I see the same people, who litter like fearless tigers in India, become meek pussycats when they go to Singapore. I think that they are emboldened to break laws here because they see their political leaders breaking all laws with impunity, being corrupt with no fear of retribution. Political corruption is present everywhere, including in Singapore. LKY addressed this by instituting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, and giving it immense power to conduct arrests, call witnesses, investigate the bank accounts and income-tax returns of suspected persons and their families, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. India would do well to have such an institution, instead of the toothless CBI.

(The writer belongs to the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science. Email:

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 11:36:42 AM |

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