While trumpeting the antiquity and richness of the Indian civilisation during his overseas jaunts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been making some less complementary remarks about the country which he leads. His ‘ashamed of being born in India’ before his government came into power has been castigated on the social media.
While addressing the Indian community in Shanghai, he reflected, “Earlier you felt ashamed on being born as an Indian. Now you feel proud to represent the country.” Echoing the same idea in Seoul, he said, “There was a time when people used to say we don’t know what sins we committed in our past life that we were born in Hindustan... The mood has changed.”
I don’t share the social media outrage over his less complementary remarks because I feel one could be proud as well as ashamed of different aspects of his country. Just like Mr Modi, I too am proud of the rich heritage of our civilisation.
But unlike him, I never felt “ashamed” of the slower progress or under development of our country. My unease has been more about the lack of civic sense and courtesy especially in the urban society.
To his credit, the prime minister decided to do something about it by launching the “Clean India Campaign” in last October. The result has been disappointing because the effort was more symbolic than real.
Civic sense is a carefully cultivated set of rights and responsibilities voluntarily exercised by the citizens of a cultured society.
Starting from small things such as not littering, spitting and urinating in public places to bigger things, such as being courteous and considerate; follow rules while walking and driving; refrain from polluting the water and air and being respectful to the opposite sex; are at the heart of a refined civilisation. Architecture of the Indus Valley cities suggests our ancestors had developed a very advanced civic sense some five millennia ago. Drains used to be covered, no house would open on the main road and the traffic was strictly regulated. So how come have we reached to the stage where we are?
Apart from carrying a near hypnotising impression of richness and vividness of our cultural heritage, the foreign tourists returning from India also carry a disturbingly uncomplimentary impression of our people – especially of men folk. “Spitting, nose digging and urinating in public and ogling at women seems to be a national pastime of Indian men,” a British tourist told me once, narrating her travel experience. I was hurt and visibly embarrassed by this blunt generalisation.
But when I went to Southall, a South Asian dominated area of the west London; I could see for myself the tell tale spit marks on the walls and corners of the train station itself. Annoyingly, spit marks, jumping the queues and encroachment of the public spaces have all become like the territorial marks of the south Asians world over.
Clean India Campaign can address only a tiny spectrum of this absence of the civic sense at best. We shall have to find ways to switch on civic sense in our DNA. This can be done by teaching it in schools, work places, places of worship and at railway stations, bus stations, roads and market places. We cannot seriously expect to develop a sizable tourism industry or clean up the environment without improving our civic sense first.
A friend of mine from France used to say, “Every mouth in the Indian market used to look like a spit-gun which can fire without warning.” I am constantly reminded of his words when I see heritage building walls eroded by the spit; basins, commodes, lifts, platforms and even the places of worship pockmarked by the spit.
Then there is the habit of urinating in the open. One can understand poor people or rural folk who do not have access to toilets. But what about rich people travelling by fancy cars? Why do they have to relieve themselves at roadsides? Surely, they can afford to pop into a restaurant to find a toilet. If a foreign tourist dares to travel by a train, nearly half of his journey is spent looking at people spitting, digging their noses, urinating and defecating in public. This is not exactly an enchanting poster-card image which will attract the neo-rich Chinese tourists. We can’t blame our dismal civic authorities for these nasty habits either.
Can we blame them for our habit of littering? We seem to have turned into a use-and-throw organism that loves to consume the fast food and litter the road. Most of the roadside tea stalls and eateries are perched on or around drains where food waste and litter is dumped right into the drain choking the whole system. Most of the fruit, ice cream, food and pan vendors, florists and dump their rubbish on the roadside or in the drain. We tend to throw out litter from widows of our running cars without thinking about the other people on the road. We tend to spit out from running cars and autos. Trains still dump their toilet waste on the tracks. Shouldn’t the Clean India Campaign address this issue first?
What about the roads, which are fast becoming the most dangerous places on earth? If you wish to see the crab mentality at work, just glance at the road traffic in any Indian city at a busy time. There is no lane discipline. Drivers come at you head long from the wrong side. Vehicles will try to enter a bottleneck from all possible angles forcing traffic to creep and inch-pinch. Everyone will honk at each other in tandem creating a deafening cacophony of noise. No one likes to give way to anyone. Not even to the pedestrians using zebra crossing. First, they try to deafen them by honking and then to run them over to wish them away. This is multiplying the carbon and noise pollution in the cities by reducing an average speed to less than 8 kms an hour. Driving at night is a nightmare because everyone will try to blind each other by beaming ever powerful search lights.
We seem to be oblivious to the fact that driving is a complex social activity. As drivers we are not only responsible for our own lives but also fir lives of the others on the road. A single lapse can ruin or end our lives. Just like on road, we have become addicted to short cuts and jumping queues in general. Even at a few places like Delhi Metro where we have learned to queue at entry points, all hell breaks loose when the Metro doors open. Seat seekers push their way in without letting people out first. Once inside the public transport, people tend to shout loud on their phones or ogle at women, especially the foreigners.
Lack of civic sense has reached at such point of crisis that no single campaign can address it. To address the crisis we first need to dismount our high horses of the sense of greatness and introspect seriously about our failings in civic virtues. An honest debate is needed to arrive at a consensus on urgent steps. I wouldn’t go as far as Sir V K Naipaul, and call ourselves a “Wounded Civilisation.”
But there is no denying that we have become a civilisation without civic sense which needs an urgent fix.
(A consulting editor with Focus News, Shiv Kant Sharma was based in London for 28 years. Of that, he spent 10 years as editor of BBC Radio before moving back to India.)