Lalit Bhanot, the Secretary-General of the Indian Olympic Committee, set off a firestorm of controversy last week when he sought to explain away the appalling hygienic conditions at the Commonwealth Games Village. In a careless and inappropriate remark, Bhanot suggested that Indians and foreigners have different standards of cleanliness, causing public dismay and hand wringing. However, if the truth be told, it may not have been far off the mark.
Visit any major Indian metropolis and you will find rotting garbage around every major street corner, stray dogs sniffing through the piles in search of scraps of food and pedestrians and motorists seemingly oblivious to these appalling sights. Meanwhile urban residents, regardless of social class, think nothing of tossing to the ground food wrappers, leftovers and fruit rinds in any number of public places from markets to parks. Few such areas have garbage cans handy and this only encourages this careless behavior.
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Worse still, most major urban centers lack basic public bathrooms and it is hardly uncommon to see men urinating along major roads. The sanitary conditions that prevail in and around major slums in India’s cities would make the conditions of Dickensian England look positively salubrious. Even wealthy neighborhoods aren't exempt. The stench and the filth that I encounter five mornings a week as I drop my daughter off at an expensive private school make me shudder. The school, I might add, is located in a diplomatic enclave.
In the wake of the Secretary-General’s controversial remark, the local municipal authorities in conjunction with New Delhi’s government have moved swiftly to clean up the CWG Village. In all likelihood the village will be livable in time for the onset of the games. However, one is forced to wonder about what will happen when the Games come to a close. Will all of the outcry about the miserable quality of civic facilities in urban areas be swiftly forgotten? Does the quality of urban life make no difference to the millions, many of whom are increasingly middle class, in India’s major metropolitan centers? Will they undertake some form of collective action to address what are not mere eyesores but genuine signs of urban blight? Or will they simply shrug off the accumulated mounds of dirt, garbage and pools of stagnant water as simply the normal state of affairs in every urban setting?