Many years ago, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India ran a print campaign that was carried in news magazines and national newspapers. It showed two pictures: one, a beautiful shot of migratory birds hovering mid-air and the second, a shot of people in a car throwing waste and littering the area around their vehicle. The two captions read: ‘the birds came by air’ and ‘the animals came by car’. The advertisement campaign was part of a series of public service messages aimed at bringing attention to the near national habit of littering at public places in the name of ‘picnics’. Apart from littering, one other sore public habit being practiced in the country is that of spitting which is not found in other countries at all. Both aspects of public behavior are widely prevalent in Manipur unfortunately. The lack of garbage dumping sites and waste sorting systems in Imphal and other districts go a long way in presenting us the not so scenic sight of garbage in public spaces. But what is less talked about is the lack of dustbins in public spaces like markets, hospitals, shopping areas and even offices. The lack of civic sense is clearly seen day in and day out on the roads of Imphal where high end vehicles pull down their windows and throw out empty food packets, empty mineral bottles etc only makes matters worse.
There is an additional common social habit being followed in Manipur: one, where people converge in hordes around the Sekmai river, put up Shamiana tents, wash their vehicles and food items both besides taking dips in the river water and then use the water again for cooking purposes, all in the name of a picnic. Most common during the New Year period, the spectacle of vehicles driving down to the riverside is a typical syndrome of having a good time at the expense of people living in the area. Not many care to think of how they would react if a group of strangers came in hordes, cooked their meals and then dumped their waste in their living surroundings. There is no sense of civic hygiene or caring enough when people head for picnics. The tell tale signs in scenic spots in the state are enough proof of the sensitivity of people who travel in their vehicles and leave after dumping waste. It is not just the popular Sekmai picnic area that is littered but the habit of cleaning up by simply throwing waste to a waste collection point or in case waste bins are not around, picking up waste till they can be dumped at a specified place just does not exist. One does not need to get out of Imphal but can see it in the manner that residential areas throw waste outside of their own compounds. Check any public area and chances are there will be litter lying around.
Fortunately, it is not just a bleak state of affairs. There have been efforts by NGOs, activists and other social clubs and groups to clean up rivers and road-sides in recent times. Aided by social networking sites, young people today have come together to organize cleaning up campaigns by raising money and spreading the news without any agenda but to attempt a social awareness on cleanliness. Yet, these attempts are too little, too less and cannot make any substantial changes in the environment. A case in point was the Clean Nambul river campaign that brought people who did not even know each other through social networking sites. Young people went about discussing over the program, rallying volunteers and financing the materials needed for the campaign. What took months to formulate unfortunately went back to square one within a few weeks when garbage started piling up again. This is exactly what will happen in the Sekmai river-bed even as a club has started to clean up the litter that picnickers have left behind. So long as there is a social awakening on the need to clean up, there cannot be a real long term change of social habits. Till the time, parents and elders of a family show by example that they clean up, younger children will never learn to do so. Till the time, each of us do not care where garbage piles up as long as it is not in our compound, we will continue to have piecemeal campaigns to assuage our social conscience. But to ensure that things change for the better, there needs to be a broad social willingness to take responsibility towards a better and cleaner environment.