In New Delhi this past week, politicians made an absolute farce of the Swachh Bharat Clean India campaign as they posed away, clearing rubbish specifically dumped for the photo-ops. In Mumbai, the campaign has made little headway in cleaning up a vast, smelly and dirty city. In Bangalore, the government dithered over finding a suitable site to dump the hundreds of tonnes of waste that the city produces. If there is a city for Indians to learn civic duty from, it has to be Tokyo.
Tokyo is an immaculate paradox. There is hardly a garbage bin to be found on the streets and yet, there is no litter in the world’s most populous metropolitan area. With its 38 million people, the largest urban conglomeration on earth is squeaky clean.
How do the Japanese (seemingly) effortlessly accomplish what the Americans, Scandinavians and the British also achieve — albeit only after spending millions of tax money on manpower and expensive equipment to clean their streets and public spaces? It boils down to the innate Japanese habit of picking up after themselves. The Japanese do not throw rubbish on the floor. They pocket or bag the litter and take it back with them.
Japan’s clean cities are a culture shock to visitors who realise that it is a combined citizens’ effort, only strategically supplemented by local governments. The no-littering ethic is rooted in Japan’s culture. The country is an island without access to endless resources and the Japanese value everything. What they don’t need, they dispose of correctly. “The Japanese will not do things that would embarrass — and littering would make us feel very ashamed,” explained Takanobu Iwasaki, a deputy director at the bureau of environment in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Instilling such a shaming system amongst Indians would have to start young, just as it does in Japan. Every Japanese child is told early on that littering is a no-no. Every 10-year-old in her fourth grade studies waste management as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. She learns how to reduce garbage, how to dispose of rubbish correctly and how to recycle.
There is another critical aspect. School children routinely clean up their schools, the streets near their schools and even their neighbourhoods. If the school baseball team gathers to practise every weekend, it would likely spend extra time one weekend a month cleaning up a road, a park or some area located in the community.
In India, we live in spotless homes and bathe at least once daily but thoughtlessly litter, spit, dump garbage and urinate in public spaces. In contrast, public places in Japanese cities and rural areas stay pristine. Households clean up the street in front of their homes by turn every other day. Residents painstakingly segregate their waste. The segregation might seem extreme to citizens in India, who are used
to combining organic waste, plastic, paper, metal and bottles in one heap and dumping it at a convenient spot outside of their immediate surroundings. India produces over 55 million tonnes of solid waste every year, according to one estimate, but nearly all of it is unsegregated.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife declared on television recently that Abe had the duty of taking out their household trash on designated days. In Tokyo, Mondays are for combustible waste, Tuesdays for organic waste, and so on. Detailed instructions are circulated every year. Large-sized waste such as mattresses and furniture requires a ticket, which can be obtained by paying a fee based on the size of the item. Waste collection bins are collected by garbage trucks. Again by turn, households clean up the area where the collection bins are placed. Shopowners clean their own storefronts and street stretches. “It is the community that cleans up our public spaces, otherwise the budget to clean up a city like Tokyo would be huge,” said Iwasaki.
But the stark difference is in the way in which garbage is viewed. In Japan, waste is not seen as dirty or disgusting. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tokyo’s government raised the status of its waste collectors, providing them uniforms, workplace shower facilities and good salaries. “In many countries, school kids run after ice-cream trucks. In Tokyo, children run after the garbage trucks,” said Iwasaki. Many of his friends are waste workers who earn 3,00,000 yen (Rs 1.6 lakh), the same monthly salary as many office workers, he said.
A cool masked superhero appeared on Tokyo’s streets recently. The caped crusader, Mangetsu Man, does not fight crime. Instead, he is a one-man army who uses his broom, dust pan and a horde of volunteers to sweep up any dirt on the streets. If only Indian cities could summon thousands of Mangetsu Man, citizens’ alter ego superheroes who could sweep away public filth and make our cities sparkle like Tokyo.