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Are foreign countries really that much cleaner?

There is this constant refrain that I have been subjected to constantly in India from people who have either been abroad or know someone who has been abroad or who believe that they know more about other more developed countries and it goes,

" you won't believe how clean [insert name of some random western country] is !!! The people are so well-mannered, dogs dont piss next to poles, people dont spit, you dont find dirt everywhere and trash is properly disposed of. It is so nice and clean ! I wish we disgusting Indians learnt to do the same."

Pictures of spanking shiny America and other developed countries beamed into our homes by satellite television and Hollywood fare merely confirm that stereotype. I do not claim to have not been taken in by the same but I did wonder about the fact that even Pakistan, Afghanistan, countries in deep, dark Africa, even Mauritius and Malidives look amazingly clean on TV.

Are we the dirtiest country on the planet then?

Could we possibly be the worst in the world when it comes to hygiene ?

A nation which prides itself on its equating of cleanliness to godliness, a nation which forces people to take a bath after going to a funeral, a nation whose vast majority does not touch food without taking a bath, a nation where the poorest clean their homes every day without fail, can it possibly be the dirtiest ?

There was no way this conundrum was going to be resolved but by self examination. And thankfully, I got the chance to do exactly that when I came to the UK.

And now that I have been here for more than 6 weeks, I can safely say, in the true Mark Twain spirit, that "the rumors of India being the dirtiest country in the world are greatly exaggerated"

I am no alleging that England has a better claim to that title, far from it. But the image of a shiny, super-clean, haven of cleanliness is quite far from the truth.

The roads are not clean and well maintained. Just like there are bits of VIP roads in India that get constant attention and meticulous care while other lesser cousins are left to their sorry state, UK too has some special roads which are impeccable while the others are in quite a dilapidated state. Just like there are bits and pieces of paper and packing material and polythene pieces flying about on Indian streets, there are the same items, beer cans, cigarette cases, and a million other discarded knick knacks that are just thrown all over the place here as well.

The Brits get an awful lot of receipts everyday. Small bits of paper but many of them. Gas receipts, shopping receipts, parking receipts, bus tickets, train tickets, cab receipts, if it happens, it generates a bit of paper somewhere. And they just throw them away. Either at the exact point where the receipt is generated, so there are ugly sights of piles of receipts lying right next to the self-scanning terminals at large super stores, or a few minutes later, once they have scanned the receipt. Buses are littered with tickets, theater aisles are littered with used tickets, ATMs are surrounded with crumpled mini statements. There is just too much paper just thrown all over the place with no regard towards recycling or properly disposing trash.

That is the story outside. If we peek inside the houses, hotels, offices, some new aspects emerge. While there are clearly marked garbage bins and waste disposal techniques and guides and what not, you will still find ridiculously high amounts of trash perched on tables, lying on the floor, crumpled and pushed into corners, small but visible. The philosphy seems to be, if you dont need it, screw it, compress it and stash it somewhere. Used coffee cups, torn bags of chips, read newspapers, all of this and more are left just lying around.

Something as routine as washing hands after a trip to the loo is so rare that there are notices put up all over the place, imploring people to wash their hands. Unfortunately, they dont seem to be having any effect on the majority.

The water bodies, the river Yare flows right next to my hotel, are again filthy and dank. You cannot imagine jumping into them for a bath. They are too dirty and what is worse, they smell bad.

The one major difference, and that can not be denied, is the dust levels. Firstly, being a more technically inclined country, all homes have vacuum cleaners and hence dirt gets sucked up and disposed more effectively. However, since you cannot vacuum everyday and the floors are usually carpeted, the dust remains trapped in the carpet for upto a week or more, directly in touch with your feet and even your body if you lie down.

Secondly, and this is critical, there just isnt much dust anyway. India is a tropical country, we have the Thar on our western border. We are climatically disadvantaged when it comes to dust. We are bound to get more dust. We will just have to do the best we can to tackle it.

But we are certainly not the dirtiest there ever was, thank you.

This post is dedicated to my friend, Shipra.

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