In recent years there have been few news items that came as music to the ears than “the zero garbage campaign” launched by the Imphal Municipal Council. Understandably, many social organisations of repute are pitching in their effort towards the campaign too. For the past many years, Imphal was beginning to look like a city which was abjectly failing among others in managing its own waste, and in the process was coming to be buried in filth. Quite outrageously, Imphal was being forced to get used to the indignity of encountering the ugly putridity of garbage piling up at practically every corner of the city, in the busy bazaar areas, as well as quite surprisingly, in residential colonies (leikais). Once upon a time, residents of Imphal, and indeed the entire state, were extremely conscious of personal hygiene, and would take pains every morning to sweep not just their homes and courtyards, but also public spaces adjacent to their residences, such as the stretches of the streets immediately outside their homes. The sight of faeces and dead animals etc on the road, when one was embarking on the day’s work or important appointment, were considered bad omen, and it was taken for granted that the responsibility was of everybody to ensure that these did not happen to anybody. To be negligent on these matters was looked down upon as bad civic sense.
As a demonstration of this collective community sense of sociability, it was once common sight to see these leikais periodically choose relatively free days such as public holidays, for everybody in the locality to come out and clean their immediate living environment together with great fanfare and commitment. Such activities were quite exuberantly but appropriately referred to as “social service”. One important day, and a popular one at that, for such “social service” was on Gandhi Jayanti, on October 2, in honour of the great soul by the name. Today these voluntary community services are distant memories at best. This is partly because of the phenomenal acceleration in the pace of life in the last few decades, but more than this, it is also symptomatic of a decay of moral and social ethos within the individual citizen. The society has today become extremely inward looking and predictably this has been at the neglect of tangible social fabrics of the past that not only bound communities together, but also kept it healthy as a collective. The vacuum thus left by the fading of a traditional sense of “social service” should have been filled up by the new notion of official governmental “public service”, but sadly the transition has been disastrous. A lost ageing tradition crippled the society but its new modern replacement lacked the will or commitment to carry on the mission. The result is indignity of garbage piling up everywhere. Practically nobody today has any qualm about littering in public places in the false belief that public health and public hygiene are not their responsibility but of the government. The government department meant to keep these spaces clean also remain caught in the equally false belief that the government is there to ensure them their salaries and perks alone, and their performing the public responsibilities they are given, is secondary.
The biggest challenge before the “zero garbage campaign” in Imphal, commendable as it is, will have to be the resurrection of a new avatar of the old culture in which all citizen shared responsibility and commitment towards the upkeep of their living environment, and at the same time the streamlining of government work culture and employees’ attitude to wage, to make them truly imbibe what is contained in the popular epithet “equal pay for equal work and no pay for no work” defining any public service. The project must be grounded on the reality that it can only be accomplished by the joint effort of public and government. For this, public awareness must be raised till it comes to the realisation that it is an enlightened outlook to believe promoting public good is, in the ultimate analysis, promoting self interest. The public must once again introspect on the virtues of the sense of community and community health that it once so proudly upheld, and then marry this with the modern culture of public service by public servants. The public servants themselves must swallow the truth that in this new paradigm, they are worthy to be called public servants and paid from public exchequer only if they perform the public services they are given the responsibility, with accountably and commitment.