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(Photograph above courtesy Times of India, Kolkata edition, March 31, 2024)

The nation’s and West Bengal’s pride, the East-West Metro running under the Hooghly River, has literally raised a stink within two weeks of the inauguration of its 4.8 km stretch between Howrah Maidan and Esplanade. For those unfamiliar with Kolkata metro’s geography, the East-West metro is a 16.6 kilometre route between Howrah Maidan and Phoolbagan, of which 10.8 kilometres is an underground stretch that includes a 520-metre tunnel passing 30 metres under the Hooghly River. The much-anticipated opening day saw over 70,000 commuters enjoying their first experience of an underwater metro passage. Since then, the daily average passenger load appears to have settled to about 50,000.

Just a week into its inauguration, newspapers carried pictures and reports about commuters spitting out paan and gutkha on to the brand new floors and walls of the metro stations. Really shameful, to say the least. These walking – spitting hazards should be caught and made to clean up the place on the spot and punished for defacing public property; but like all our problems about which we cry hoarse, this too lacks an effective enforcement mechanism. Immediate and hefty fines must be instituted to deter commuters from dirtying the metro stations and trains.

A week later, clogged toilets in the four metro stations of the underground stretch raises even a  bigger stink. Toilets do not normally clog if a they are used as toilets. They usually clog when they are used as garbage bins in addition to being used as toilets. Don’t we know the difference between toilets and dustbins, or do we simply not care? I strongly suspect it is the latter because however uninformed, uneducated or careless a person may be, their home toilets don’t get clogged this way. It is just that as citizens, we have not assumed ownership of public property. Ruining public property is rampant in India and just nobody seems interested – not the citizen, not the administration, not the politician.

Not all the blame, however, can be placed at the doorstep of the commuter. The people and organisations connected with the building of the metro railway must also bear responsibility for poor planning. The 4.8 kilometre stretch that was inaugurated has four metro stations, each having only three toilets, one for men, one for women and one for people with disabilities. The toilet sizes are very small for their intended purpose and range from 3.6 sq. m to 6 sq. m; the largest one being at Howrah. Is this some kind of a joke? Three cubby-hole toilets for a daily passenger rush of 50,000 commuters? This underground stretch has come at a public cost of Rs 4965 crores as per open source information. I am sure a little more could have been spent on passenger and public conveniences. After all, it is a mass ‘public’ transport system.

Coming to the larger issue of public hygiene and sanitation – it is little wonder that we, as a country, have always figured in the bottom twenty countries in the Human Development Index, year after year. The first reason for this is civic behaviour. We are just not ‘potty-trained’ well enough in the larger sense of the term. People urinate on the wall next to my house, on one of Kolkata’s main thoroughfares, despite my best efforts at trying to divert them to the nearest public toilet. This ‘stand on the road and pee’ is a national disease that needs to be eradicated by those in power and authority.

Second, our penchant for littering anywhere and everywhere is as legendary as it is irritating. Whether it is throwing trash on the streets or spitting in public places, we do it without even batting an eyelid – as if it is a public entitlement. “My right to litter; somebody else’s problem to clean up my mess”, sums up our public attitude.

Third, there does not seem to be any urgency to clean up the stink, at least in Kolkata. I happened to meet a local politician at a function and when I mentioned to him that much could be done to clean up the city, his response was “Our city is cleaner than many in the country – there is no problem.” When there is a complete refusal to acknowledge the existence of a problem, there is no hope of a solution.

Fourth, municipal corporations, gram panchayats and other civic bodies must be suitably enabled with funds, human resource, equipment and other wherewithal, not just to keep areas under their charge clean but also to enforce strict fines for dirtying or defacing public property. They must be held accountable for efficient delivery of public services and heads must roll for poor performance. Basic public hygiene and the right to live in a clean environment should be the reason for citizens to vote parties into power or out of it.

Fifth, the number of public toilets and waste-bins across the length and breadth of the country, especially in crowded cities, needs to be enhanced exponentially. In their absence, the entire city, town or village becomes a garbage dump. More importantly, there needs to be sustainable and efficient mechanisms to keep these public conveniences clean, including round-the-clock waste removal from targeted areas such as marketplaces, railway stations, public parks, food courts and hawking zones.

Establishment owners, operators and hawkers must be directed, under pain of heavy financial penalties, to keep their own surroundings clean. Public toilets must be run by social welfare organisations like ‘Sulabh International’, with funding support through municipal corporations. ‘Pay-and-use’ must be the norm in order to run them in a sustainable manner. Inspections and enforcement by authorities is an absolute necessity if we wish to see any visible improvement.

For all the good intentions of the Swachh Bharat campaign, it has not yet proved to be the game-changer as envisioned by the Prime Minister. It is time all governments, local bodies and citizens’ groups started taking the campaign seriously with renewed vigour. If there is one area in which our country must focus, it is public hygiene and sanitation, above everything else – even ahead of health, education, science and technology. It will address the very foundation of social upliftment and public welfare. Existing schemes such as MGNREGA, with their huge financial outlays, could be channelised in support of cleaning up our country.

If we as citizens, do not take ownership of public places, public facilities and public conveniences, Swachh Bharat will remain just a hollow slogan.


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