I have never seen so much beauty, and so many beautiful women so beautifully dressed in my life. I have also never seen such absolute filth anywhere in my life. Amidst the incredible beauty of lush green plantain and coconut trees (even in the cities), misty and lush green granite mountains (and polished granite buildings in homes), elaborate antiquities, and colorful silk and sequined sarees, sewage runs through the streets and litter overwhelms nearly everything. India is a land of paradoxes, and as an Oregonian, I could not help but be stunned – daily – by the contrast of such incredible beauty with such incredible filth.
I knew no world without clean public beaches and recycling as the norm. The first bottle bill in the nation was passed by the Oregon legislature the year I was born. It may have gone into effect the day before I was born. Who knew a semi-controversial piece of state legislation could affect my life perspective so much? My understanding is the culture against public littering in Oregon is at least as old as the bottle bill. I would not have ever known that people throw garbage out of their car window while driving were it not for the signs on highways reading, “no dumping.” As a child I did not even know what those signs meant since there was such little evidence that even gum wrappers went by the wayside. I do not know what year the first SOLV beach cleanup happened, but I do know that because of the culture against littering it was never okay to leave trash behind at the beach (or anywhere else). When the annual cleanup finally did start there were always so many volunteers we never participated, even living at the beach.
I don’t know whether the open sewers and sewage running in the streets or the litter was more breathtaking in Karnataka. Literally speaking, the sewage was pretty breathtaking. Watching women drag the hems of their beautiful sarees through the streets was heartbreaking. Open sewers is a problem of inadequate infrastructure. It can only be solved when adequate resources are devoted to improving the infrastructure to support public health. In walking through Mandya where the sidewalks were more consistently available and usable and the paved streets in better repair than in Mysore and in Madikeri it was obvious that either insufficient tax dollars get collected in much of Karnataka, or the dollars collected are not allocated and used for infrastructure as a priority. This is a complicated and messy issue that is inappropriate for a foreigner visiting under a month to get into. So I won’t.
The litter was too much to bear. Our dear friend Maveen treated us to tea at one of the tea stalls in Mandya. It came in a little plastic cup, too hot to hold. The tea was classic Indian tea, thick with milk and sugar. As we walked we sipped, and when my little plastic cup was empty I instinctively looked for a dustbin. All I saw was litter on the ground to step over. Dustbins do exist, but mainly in parks and at historic heritage sites. I mistakenly asked, “What do we do with the cup?” Maveen took my cup and said, “In India, we just throw it out.” Down to the ground it went, and we kept walking. I was horrified! “You can’t do that! That is littering,” I responded once I could digest that I had, effectively, just littered. It was my cup that went sailing to the ground. That is a punishable offense where we live, and certainly a mortal sin in any religion. I don’t want to know what Greg did with his cup, but I have a feeling Maveen took care of it as well.
The worst part about the litter is it is everywhere. The beautiful banks of the sacred, lifegiving Cauvery River were cluttered, and in places out clogged, with litter. In the human-built holy sites worshippers and guests are not allowed to wear shoes. It makes little sense for littering to be the norm along the banks of the holy Cauvery River, and even surrounding the grounds of important heritage sites.
There is some litter I am unaccustomed to seeing, which makes sense as it is: organic refuse. Chiefly, we see this as giant piles of coconut husks anywhere between three and eight feet tall, or occasional mango pits, or sugar cane stalks. The coconut husks are used for fire when they are dry, and presumably decompose if they sit at the bottom of the pile too long. We in the U.S. could learn a lesson about making the most of our resources here.
Public trash is just the way it is. It is so jarring relative to my norm it was a challenge to look at it, right up to the day we left. Litter is a standard of human behavior, not an infrastructure problem. I dutifully carried around my trash and left Rajeev with a small bag to dispose of when we parted. (Sorry! I could not help myself.) In parts of the U.S., and in a different time even in the Pacific Northwest, the norm was not dissimilar. What changed so that when I grew up I simply did not know anyone thought it was acceptable to litter? King’s writings on racism advise that it takes a law change for behavior to change, but this is not sufficient to change hearts and minds, which changes attitudes and beliefs. Pollution and litter are certainly not a bigger problem than racism in our world, but a different problem. I would argue, however, it is a sign of racism. The point is not to argue the connection between these two issues, but the logic of needing to change practices and changing thinking applies to solving nearly any social problem.
So my dear friend, Maveen, please do become the leader you strive to be. Please, once again, take your friends by the hand and lead them through your community and your fond stomping grounds. And please, as you guide your friends through your community and through life, start the process of changing practices, to change the habits. Start the first SKLV and organize the first Cauvery River Bank Cleanup. Karnataka is remarkable. The community and the people are so beautiful, inside and out. The appearance, and the safety and health of the local people and the local wildlife could be so improved by cleaning up the litter. Who am I as a gringo on a four-week visit to suggest my own norm? Just a gringo who loves Karnataka. I don’t think everything should change to my norm, but the litter and the pollution are at levels that are arguably unsafe and unhealthy. A change in this norm would be felt by so many people.