If there is a ranking of countries in respect of observance of standards of sanitation and hygiene, one can be sure that India would figure close to the bottom. Some time ago, a British MP, Lucy Ivimy, was reported to have said that Indians did not know how to dispose of their rubbish and are congenital litterbugs.

From time to time, in their unguarded moments, highly placed persons in advanced industrial countries have burst out against Indians for being filthy and dirty in their ways of life. A majority of visitors to India from those countries complain of “Delhi belly” within a few hours of arrival, and some fall seriously ill.

There is no point in getting infuriated or defensive about this. The general lack of cleanliness and hygiene hits the eye wherever one goes in India — hotels, hospitals, households, work places, railway trains, airplanes and, yes, temples. Indians think nothing of spitting whenever they like and wherever they choose, and living in surroundings which they themselves make unliveable by their dirty habits.

The Indian Public Health Association has regularly been reporting the “scary situation” in Indian hotels, restaurants and eateries. The last, in particular, do not follow hygienic practices, use unclean containers, utensils and cups and plates and are often located near open drains or garbage bins.

Most mid-day meal kitchens in schools are no better.

DIRTIEST CLOTHES

Recently, Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh courted a controversy with his remark that India needed more toilets than temples. Open defecation has become so rooted in India that even when toilet facilities are provided, the spaces round temple complexes, temple tanks, beaches, parks, pavements, and indeed, any open area are covered with faecal matter.

Some years ago, while staying at the Guest House of an undertaking, I watched with disbelief the wife of a fellow-guest occupying another room letting her child out into the compound to do its business. When I asked her why she was doing it when there was a good attached bath-room, she blandly said that the child was not comfortable with any other mode of evacuation. True story!

If one wants to keep one’s sanity, one should avoid entering the kitchen of a hotel or even an ordinary household. I sometimes wonder how we are still alive eating at our hotels. At the dining hall of a posh mansion hired out for weddings, I noticed stacks of dahi vadas and jalebis kept covered by the dirtiest clothes I ever saw.

Here are some sample findings from a published study conducted by Hygiene Council and supported by Reckitt Benckiser:

All swabbed kitchen cloths in India are heavily contaminated and found to be the dirtiest item in Indian households; in 92 per cent cases, chopping boards and knives are found to be contaminated; 45 per cent of home makers do not wash fruit and 51 per cent of them do not wash vegetables before eating; only 44 per cent of them clean and disinfect their child's lunch box every day; only 44 per cent of children are made to wash their hands after playing outside.

INTRIGUING FEATURE

The other day, filth and muck reportedly prevented the Minister of Shipping G. K. Vasan from stepping on to the Chennai beach from where he wanted to watch the tugging away of a stranded tanker.

One would presume that at least the passengers travelling air-conditioned classes in Indian trains paying costly fares would come from more hygienically sensitive strata of society. But no: Within a few hours, the coaches are choked with all kinds of litter, commodes are blocked with all kinds of stuff, flushes rendered dysfunctional and washbasins put out of use.

Even as Indians, we are forced to recoil with horror at the infinite tolerance of fellow Indians to pile-ups of garbage, overflowing sewage, open drains and generally foul-smelling environs. Governments too naturally reflect the same traits. Go to any government hospital, for instance.

An intriguing feature of this scenario is the general appearance of cleanliness and tidiness of churches, mosque, gurdwaras and Buddhist and Jain places of worship in contrast to the repelling conditions of Hindu temples and related establishments.

Are Indians, then, by nature oblivious to standards of hygiene? And among Indians, are Hindus more indifferent in these respects than others?

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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