Sunday, November 8, 2009

Chinks in hygiene and civic responsibility

Shombhit Sengupta, Chinks in hygiene and civic responsibility, Indian Express, November 8, 2009.

About 2.5 billion people in the world have no access to safe sanitation, and half of South Asia suffers the indignity of open defecation. This lack of hygienic facilities is a fundamental cause of disease leading to 1.5 million children dying every year as per UN figures.

Can India’s 2020 promise to become a developed country free from poverty be fulfilled without improving hygiene and civic responsibility?

Hygiene: Landing in Amritsar international airport a month ago, I felt really proud that India’s B class towns are becoming so advanced. A high-rise roof in modern glass and metal; the new baggage belt looking better than the latest German engineering. This thrill was knocked out by the foul-smelling toilet with insects running around.

On a routine market observation visit, a newly built public toilet in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar looked good as I saw it from inside the car. But on stepping out, its sharp stink immobilised me. On its left, a store was selling fresh flowers. I wonder how people differentiate floral fragrance from the toilet’s ammonia-and-faeces smell.

Most spectacular is Mumbai’s Rolls Royce showroom, just 500 metres from Worli Gutter, a putrid garbage drain that joins the sea. Just imagine this ambience when buying the world’s most expensive and sophisticated car. New Delhi’s upmarket South Extension displays the latest Japanese and Korean electronic products in neon-lit splendour, but their toilet on the floor above is ugly and dirty and it reeks. The purpose of a high-flying lifestyle escapes me when the fundamentals of better living are far from being in place.

Civic responsibility: When people sweep their own premises, it may not occur to them that they are gifting dirt to their neighbours. This aptly reflects our complete lack of civic responsibility as a people. Incidentally, India has developed an excellent hygienic habit in the jet washer in modern public WCs. This is undoubtedly superior to Western toilet paper that keeps the body unclean all day. Until you see water spots in the toilet seat, you never know if it’s water from the jet washer or a human body. The question is, how do you educate people?

I remember when I left for Europe in 1973, the toilet cleaning I was accustomed to in my refugee colony consisted of specified people carrying away drums of human excreta on their heads every day. I feel ashamed that this disgraceful profession still exists in India. Later at Kolkata’s art college, I learnt of the Indian-style sanitary toilet. But it was in the plane to Europe that I first saw an English-style commode. In the students’ hostel in Paris, we used a common toilet. A Greek friend was one day knocking on the bathroom door, but I didn’t reply. So he climbed over the open top and found me with my feet on the toilet seat, traditional Indian style. I didn’t even know that I had to put the seat cover down and sit on it as on a chair. It took me nearly six months to get used to this Western toilet culture.

Men’s habit of relieving themselves anywhere, with no shame that women are walking by, is total disregard of civic responsibility. Women need a bio-break too, but you never see them using the roadside. While working for a supply chain logistics company on how frontline staff should be customer sensitive with their packet delivery system, one of our researchers followed a competition delivery van of a globally reputed company with a camera. The van stopped outside a customer’s gate, the man got off, first relieved himself on the customer’s wall, and then went in with the package.

In every urban corner, you’ll generally find overflowing, odorous dustbins. Before India joined WTO, our public dustbins mostly had Indian products; now they also have beautifully designed, non-bio-degradable plastic wrappers from famous multinational brands. A few responsible Bangalore citizens took the initiative to collect garbage from homes for bulk disposal in large black plastic bags. The other day I happened to drive through greenery in Mutkur village off Varthur lake, and suddenly saw mounds of black plastic bags dumped alongside the village walkway. Vultures and poor children were rummaging through the garbage, breaking the bags to find some surprise.

This situation was not always so. The earliest recorded covered sewers are in the Indus Valley Civilisation cities. In 2500 BC, the people of Harappa had water-borne toilets in each house linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. They considered sanitation an important public health measure essential for disease prevention.

Today’s lack of hygiene and civic responsibility is damaging the aspirational value of all business. Whether an industry is in manufacturing or service, the real delivery to customer hands is from the shopfloor or frontline people. Did anyone check the difference between the factory workers’ toilet and the one in the corporate office?

The factor differentiating organised retail from wholesale, mom-and-pop or commodity markets, is housekeeping. But housekeeping is totally alien to those hired to maintain cleanliness, so the retail soon looks dishevelled. Inside an American fast food outlet in Delhi’s Greater Kailash, the dustbin was being cleaned next to people enjoying their chicken. You may mistake the car park behind the market as a garbage storeyard, but it’s surprising that even globally renowned companies mushrooming in India make no move to clean up the environment. Perhaps as part of 2020 development, the government should create a separate ministry for hygiene and civic responsibility to take serious action together with MNCs and Indian companies.

Hygiene derives from Hygieia, the Greek goddess for good health preservation and disease prevention. Let’s take her blessings to modernise India and teach people basic hygiene as an initiative in civic responsibility, which betters everyone’s body and mind for work and enjoyment.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management.

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