All spit and no polish

It isn’t tough to instil civic sense. We just need political will and responsible people. Namita Bhandare writes.

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The regret sank in almost as soon as the Swarn Shatabdi Express began chugging out of New Delhi railway station. At six in the morning, the sights on the rail tracks of India are hardly salubrious. Looking outside my air-conditioned chair car compartment I tried to picture chirping birds. What I saw instead were multitudes doing their business alongside the tracks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. New Delhi railway station, what should be a modern, shiny showcase to a modern, shiny country smells like a vast toilet. People sleeping in every available space, at the entrance, on the platforms, on the landing of the stairs will need a toilet when they awaken. Aren’t there enough? Or is it the ugly Indian rearing his (and her) smelly head?

Indians do reasonably well with personal hygiene. We remove our footwear before entering our homes (a testament to the filth on our streets) and are particular about washing our hands. Much is made about the superiority of our ways because we are washers, unlike those filthy westerners who are wipers. And — the gold star of our fabled cultural superiority — even our glorious Indus Valley Civilisation had a sanitation system.

But our personal fastidiousness collapses when it comes to public hygiene. We wash our homes, blithely chucking the dirty water on to the streets. If spitting was an Olympic sport, we’d have won more golds than any country. Peeing in public is common, even if there is a toilet nearby — though frequently there won’t be one and nearly 70% of our people have no access to sanitation facilities and, therefore, no choice but to use the great open spaces, including rail tracks, leading rural development minister Jairam Ramesh to describe the railway system as ‘open sewage’.

The responsibility for keeping our 7,000 railway stations clean lies with various departments from civil to health and sanitation. But stations, particularly in north India, fall woefully short. A Comptroller and Auditor General report tabled in Parliament in 2007 lists the shortcomings: no accountability, lack of coordination among multiple departments, lack of waste management, absenteeism by cleaners, the absence of cleanliness benchmarks, no cohesive action plan and way, way too many people, including unauthorised people, in our stations.

Toilets on trains are holes in the ground through which waste is dropped and deposited on the tracks, either at stations or along the way through 1.15 lakh km of rail track that criss-crosses the country. This waste must be either physically lifted by manual scavengers, a dehumanising act banned by law, or washed away with high-powered jets, when water is available.

Biodegradable toilets developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation can be a solution but are under trial and installed only in eight of the 12,000 passenger trains that run at present. Already there are problems. “People are throwing gutka packets and polythene bags inside. How do we stop it?” asks a railways official. Elsewhere, an experiment in private participation is reported to have had positive results in stations like Vashi in Navi Mumbai. At New Delhi the cleaning of platforms and tracks has been outsourced and waste management handed over to an NGO. But even these steps aren’t enough to counter the five lakh footfalls daily at the station.

When we talk of dynamic railway ministers, we talk of rolling stock and turn-around time. I don’t think any minister since Madhavrao Scindia has actually travelled by train to ask passengers: “How can I improve services?” and then undertake a modernisation drive where no detail was too small — from the way food was served to clean loos.

Our stations are doorways to India, creating first impressions on tourists and connecting the citizens of this vast country. Privatised airports, whether in Delhi or Mumbai, have proved that sanitation is not some alien beast. A sensitisation campaign, on the lines of Atithi Devo Bhava might help instil civic sense. Cleaning up is not rocket science, nor does it require huge funds. What it requires is political will and users who insist on and abide by minimum standards. Right now both are missing.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the authors are personal

Idealism, where has it gone?

From smartphones to cars, GenX has everything but not a hero in sight. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Last week, my cousin, a college professor, lamented the fact that his students lacked the idealism of his generation. He had seen the fervour of the 60s and 70s and while the long hair and the beards are gone, he couldn’t understand why his students are so focused on ‘getting rich, getting ahead’.

Yes, this generation has access to the things we could only dream of (blue jeans, Bic pens, deodorant!). But what this generation doesn’t have are role models. Smartphones and cars on easy EMIs, but not a hero in sight.

With corruption charges across parties, dynastic politics, an opposition sunk into rigor mortis, and a government stricken by a perception of paralysis, politicians are the anti-role models. Do we have a replacement? In Delhi, Team Anna, once the great middle class hope, seems split wide open. Accusations are traded on TV and there is open disagreement on core issues like whether names should be named. Elsewhere, a battle between the former army chief and the defence minister has, in addition to the Adarsh scam, eroded confidence in the army. In Mumbai, Shah Rukh Khan rages against a security guard at Wankhede Stadium, an ugly exchange replayed on national networks with more bleeps than words. When regret arrives during an interview to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, it comes with qualifications: there had been a communal angle (never spoken about so far) and he was only apologising to his kids anyway.

Khan says he is not a role model. “I want to keep acting,” he told Dutt. “I did not set out to be a role model because role models are people who play a role.” Yet, regardless of what Khan wants, he is idolised. When he scraps with a friend’s husband or smokes during a cricket match, his fans get the message: no big deal.

Perhaps the fault lies in who we — and I include a worshipful media — choose to prop up as ‘role models’. An actor who reads someone else’s script, an athlete who plays cricket for a living or an industrialist on a magazine’s rich list should not automatically become society’s lodestars. We confuse achievement with heroism and we should ask what it is that we are celebrating. Is it success, celebrity, wealth or is it some inherent human quality that touches us? Does the current adulation of Viswanathan Anand, for instance, spring from our understanding of his game and genius, our respect for his innate decency or does it come from the fact that he’s brought us sporting glory? When we say that NR Narayana Murthy is our role model do we wish to emulate his bank balance or his philanthropy?

We don’t lack personal heroes — a father perhaps or a young woman who won’t be beaten into submission. We hear enough stories of the triumph of the individual spirit from ordinary people, people whose names we forget as soon as we read them. But we do not have an agreed upon public hero. And because we live in such contentious and fractured times, getting everyone to agree on such an exemplar is impossible. One person’s demigod — pick any name, Baba Ramdev, Arundhati Roy — is another’s villain.

Worse, we are now just as quick to demolish these constructed gods as we are to build them. A year ago, we could see no wrong with Anna Hazare; now we see conspiracies and secret alliances. A year ago, we wanted nothing less than a Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar; now we make silly remarks about his hairstyle.

I have written earlier that society needs heroes because they tell us how to live, they give us something to aspire to and they bring us in contact with our core values. But perhaps we also need heroes to reassure ourselves that we are still capable of goodness, that we still have values we want to pass on to our children.

Once we had Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Vinoba Bhave and Mother Teresa. Today, well, kids just want to get rich, get ahead. Can you blame them?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal

Tuned in but turned off

Despite our connectivity, we are isolated in our personal interactions. Namita Bhandare writes.

In the tense waiting area outside the hospital’s intensive care unit, I have for 37 hours managed to avoid eye contact. It’s not an easy accomplishment, given that we are the same two dozen or so, given that we’re more or less in the same situation of keeping vigil over a loved one and given that we’re all knitted together in our common suspense.

Daughters, friends and sisters join us but conversation is muted as we shift about uneasily, shaking off cramps, apprehension and the sort of lethargy that seeps in from a combination of stress and waiting. Nationalities, political affiliations, religious loyalties and gender don’t matter and we, nameless and faceless in this waiting room, are bound together in one of life’s most intimate circumstances, balancing life and death, watching life reduced to its essential numbers: blood pressure, urine output, haemoglobin.

And, yet, 37 hours later I still don’t know a single name. Inhaling our anxiety like an anaesthetic, we avoid personal contact, transient occupants of this lounge. The longer-staying ones exchange nods. The more sociable ones mumble brief good mornings and then quickly turn away, reluctant to be drawn into a longer conversation. We cling to our individual distress, as if another person’s disquiet will somehow increase our own.

And then my 84-year-old father-in-law comes visiting. Is it his own gregarious personality or does he just belong to a different age? But in 15 minutes he’s done what I have failed to do in all these hours. No superficialities for him. He must know. Whose husband has had a lung infection. Which one’s mother went in for a hip replacement. Who needs a blood transfusion. What group. I listen at snatches of conversation: “Where are you from ? Oh, I lived there once many years ago. Do you know….?”

It strikes me then. My generation, compulsively confessional, utterly self-absorbed, posting minutiae on what we ate for lunch, where we are vacationing, what we are reading, what we like and what we abhor. We stick photographs in online albums. We share information about wedding anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and illnesses. We remember to send out congratulatory messages posted on our timeline, because, well, how can you ignore another’s status update?

And, yet, beneath all our ersatz bonhomie, lies an impersonal core. ‘Friends’ take the place of neighbours. Instant messaging sub-stitutes for hand-written letters. We trawl chat rooms but detest chit-chat. We shop in steel-and-glass malls, sheathed in anonymity but impoverished by real human contact. We are tuned in but turned off.

Our parents who struggle to master log-ins and passwords come from a time when participation was face-to-face, not on a screen. They lived in the same neighbourhoods for generations. For them what mattered was the family doctor’s bedside manner, not the fancy amenities in some corporate hospital. They made their purchases from the same small store where the shopkeeper knew not only which brand of tea but also the progress of a grandchild. They participated in all of life’s beautiful rituals — even and especially death — with the intimacy it deserved, not as a ritual where you marked your 15-minute presence.

Among the great gifts of our era is the ability to communicate faster and cheaper than at any other point in our history. Today we can be participants in the democratic process of information dissemination. And today we all have platforms from which we can voice our opinions. I am not knocking any of these. But somewhere you have to wonder if all this grand connectivity is not in fact a chimera, a crutch for our isolation and inability to focus and concentrate on one relationship, one conversation at a time.

When we expend so much energy outraging, sharing, posting, updating, chatting, BBMing, do we really have the resources to connect to the person seated next to us? Is our connectivity making us even more isolated in our personal relationships?

In the hospital waiting room, I look at my co-travellers in this tricky journey of life and death and feel I have found my answer.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.