We have been warned. A friend claimed India was the most trash-infested country he had ever seen. Others told wild stories of public defecation and littering. To be honest, we're not nearly as shocked as we expected to be, but there's certainly a long way the country has ahead of itself to clean up its act.
It doesn't take much effort to spot garbage. Even when a street seems orderly, it's enough to look into a side alley or an unused parcel to see piles that must've been building up for years. Places popular with tourists—surroundings of palaces, temples—are no exception.
Big cities stand marginally better than the small ones. Bengaluru was OK-ish. Then there were the numerous rubble piles we've seen in Mysuru. Kochi was perhaps the worst we've seen so far, with a lot of trash accumulating near the Chinese Fish Nets in Fort Kochi.
Last year in Bali we were truly disgusted with the amount of litter, on land and floating in water. India wasn't nearly as shocking. Perhaps because we've been told such nasty things before, that once we came here we though it's actually not that bad.
It's obviously a matter of mentality—the average person in the street unpacking something they just bought and casually dropping plastic wrapping onto the street in front of them. This needs to change. That person needs to gain awareness that they're doing something wrong, stop themselves, reconsider and look for a trash can. Without this consciousness there's no chance any advanced approaches will take off, like recycling.
To be fair here, I've seen some people act exactly the same way in Poland—dumping packaging, bottles, cups into the closest ditch or bush. But my guess is, the majority of people act responsibly, plus we have efficient street sweeping services.
There's also the issue of friction. How far do I need to walk to the nearest trash can? Often times too far. I commonly carry litter for a few blocks before we finally enter some cafe where I can dispose of it. Again, the bigger the city the better the situation. Bengaluru occasionally even has trash cans for recyclable packaging, though I'm not sure anyone follows directions plastered on them. Plus they look quite battered and in need of replacing.
Finally, there's of course the problem of putting basic needs, like safety, food and health, before any higher ones, like environment protection, are even considered. India may be lifting millions out of poverty, but with a billion people living here, there's still a considerable number spending too much time every day trying to survive—make some money, acquire food, even washing clothes is a time-consuming, physical endeavor. These people don't have any time nor attention left to think about what happens with the stuff they're dumping or burning in the backyards of their crumbling homes.
So, is anything changing in India? It seems yes. We saw a number of positive signals in public and private spaces, promoting responsible trash disposal. From the simple “Please maintain the Cleanness” (sic!) to a somewhat vague, if ambitious, concept of “plastic-free zones”.
We're not quite sure what a “plastic-free zone” means exactly. If it's forbidden to bring in any plastic packaging, or forbidden to dump it anywhere there, neither seems to be enforced. We appreciate the intentions, though.
Artists are chipping in, trying to help raise awareness. In Kochi, in one of the prime locations near the seaside promenade, there's a large art installation called the Fish Cemetery, symbolically showing how plastic casually dumped inland will eventually, inevitably, make it to the sea, where it's eaten up by fish, which we then catch for food. It's ugly, but it's true.
We're worried for India. It's too beautiful a country with too nice a people to remain this dirty. And obviously litter from the billion people living here cannot avoid impacting the other six billion people on Earth. We're all in this together, and so we'll be cheering for every initiative aimed at reducing the problem, and hoping the next time we visit (and by now I'm pretty sure there will be a next time), things will be looking better.