One of the most enduring impressions that visitors to India carry away with them is that Indian cities are littered with trash. This is really unfortunate since trash is something that each of us can do something about and the problem is not as intractable as the big ticket problems that require collective action such as roads, power and public transportation. I recently wrote a piece for NitiCentral.com which I reproduce below, for the record.
A tale of crash and culture
This is from many decades ago when I worked for a major corporation in the US. In the kitchenette in our corner of our building was a sign which simply declared, “Your mother doesn’t work here. Please pick up after yourself.” I still recall that sign with amusement and wonder at how much sense it made, and makes, even after all these years. Perhaps at home your mother cleaned up your mess but here your mother is not around to pick up after you. You are on your own here. Clear your own mess. Please.
Personal responsibility, like many other traits, is quite often culturally determined. People walking their dogs in the morning in New York City is a common enough sight – also common is seeing them pick up their dogs’ droppings in plastic bags to be disposed off when they get home. Certainly city ordinances mandate it but the place is not crawling with cops to enforce this behaviour: people do it because that’s just how it’s done.
I mention NY City specifically only because I was there recently on my way back from India. I have noted that same behaviour in pretty much every city I’ve been to in the US and in Western Europe – with the possible exception of London: there are too many Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis there. Their culture is different.
People carry their culture with them. I have an Indian venture-capitalist friend in the Silicon Valley who is married to a Japanese woman. As in Japanese homes, in their California home shoes are not worn inside. Guests are reminded in the invitation itself to please take off their shoes at the door. This is also quite common in Indian middle-class homes in India and abroad. But in the matter of cleanliness the Japanese are a class apart.
The Japanese are super fastidious when it comes to cleanliness. The essayist David Sedaris, in one of his hilarious books (actually all his books are hilarious), When You are Engulfed in Flames, recounts an incident when he was travelling in a train in Japan. His travelling companions were a Japanese couple with a very young boy barely older than an infant.
The little boy wanted to look out the window. The mother took out of her carry-on a small towel and laid it on the window seat, took off the little boy’s shoes, and stood him up in his socks over the towel at the window to watch the passing scenery. When it came time for them to leave, the mother put the shoes on her son, and then meticulously wiped the boy’s hand prints off the window pane before putting away the towel. They left the place as clean as it was before they arrived.
I have travelled in Indian trains innumerable times and watched with dismay the gay abandon with which people throw trash out the window. Not just trains: Indians toss stuff out their cars, busses and everywhere on the streets. I too have been guilty of throwing trash on the streets but in my defence I can say that it was only because the street was already littered and only because I could not find any trash can in sight.
Here’s the economics of throwing trash. Suppose you throw a bit of trash. Your benefit: the saved effort of not having to carry that one bit of trash to its appropriate place. Let’s say it’s a modest 1/10th of a rupee. If you are alone in the world, then the only cost is when you come across that bit of trash. Let’s say it is 1/100th of a rupee. Clearly the cost-benefit analysis says that it is OK for you to drop that trash.
Now suppose you have 10,000 people in your neighbourhood – not an unrealistic number when you live in a city in India. And suppose every neighbour of yours is faced with the same cost of disposing off his or her little bit of trash – just 1/10th of a rupee. They throw the trash on the street instead of properly disposing it. But when 10,000 people throw their own one bit of trash, you have 10,000 pieces of trash in your neighbourhood. By throwing the trash on the streets, each person saved 1/10th of a rupee but on the aggregate, the total amount of trash cost each one of you Rs 1,000 worth of nastiness. Each of you saved 1/10th of a rupee but suffered Rs 1,000 worth of disutility because of the trash in the streets.
Each of you saves a little but suffers a lot from the actions of a few thousand others who also save just a little. These are called “negative externalities” and “tragedy of the commons” by economists. These concepts are well worth being part of the general lexicon but they are not. It’s common sense but is unfortunately not very common.
If only we each decide to incur the cost of picking up after ourselves, then none of us will have to incur the cost of trash-littered streets. But that is going to happen only if it becomes culturally unacceptable to litter. How does that happen and why is a matter that we will go into the next time. For now, I leave you with a few pictures I took a couple of weeks ago in the streets of Leuven, Belgium.
Yes, Belgium is a developed country and the streets are clean. The question is whether the cleanliness came first or the development came first. What do you think?