We looked on in shock as the young couple finished their lunch, stuffed a carrier bag full of crisp wrappers, cans and polythene and casually threw it through the open window of the train. Seeing our poorly disguised expressions they shrugged and said “Look, this is India. Everyone does the same here.”
The problem is not India’s alone. In so places around the world the beautiful landscapes, blissfully untouched in so many other ways are blighted by waste tipping on a disgusting level. On our recent travels in Central America we lost count of the number of roadsides we passed that were littered with every type of waste. In some places the rubbish was piled so high and spread so wide that it hid the view beyond. People we spoke to locally were embarrassed by the stain that this thoughtless tipping creates on their land, yet could not rouse any optimism that the problem would disappear anytime soon. “It’s a question of education” is something that we often hear by way of resigned explanation.
What is it that allows people to feel so comfortable in the habitual littering of their own neighbourhoods? Perhaps there are no municipal collection facilities? True in certain places but by no means an excuse for most people as litter is often dumped next to designated bins (here in the UK as well). Is it really a lack of education? I only buy that argument partially as in many areas people see the consequences of piles of rubbish (thousands of rats and an unbearable stink) yet continue to dump at will.
I wonder if in some cases there is a lack of belief that their efforts in social hygiene will amount to anything; a reluctance to contribute to a society that has not helped them perhaps. I don’t know the answer and am sure many people have more informed perspectives on this problem. I speak only as a passing tourist who is appalled by this unsightly curse.
Yet there is hope. While out hiking in Mexico and El Salvador our guides on both occasions made a point of picking up litter that they found on the trails, and in both cases expressed their anger at the damage that this thoughtless littering would have on their own livelihoods working in tourism. In parts of Central America we saw sophisticated recycling programmes that seemed better thought out than our own schemes in the UK. Maybe it is back to education again?
As for the couple on the train, perhaps we made a difference after all. A couple of hours later after finishing another snack they gathered their rubbish up again, but this time the man wrapped it up in a plastic bag and put it back in his rucksack. We have no idea where that rubbish ended up, but if we made one person uncomfortable about throwing it from a train window then I’m happy to claim a small success.
If you enjoyed this post I would recommend Barbara’s ‘A new way of thinking about trash’ post at Hole in the Donut, which looks at different attitudes to litter from Nepal, Mexico and Vietnam.