Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ditch and varied heritage

I went on a heritage walk in the Charminar area. It involved picking my way through filthy streets to avoid litter, garbage, traffic, slush, and shit, and contriving to look up at intervals to glimpse the heritage structures I was there for. It was awful. My sense of belonging in Hyderabad may have seen me through some of the discomfort, but my friend from out of town didn’t have that buoy. I felt a blend of sympathy for her and embarrassment on Hyderabad’s behalf throughout the trip.

How can we get away with interpreting filth as quaint and cultural, and worthy of immersion in to get the true feel of a place? All the while, paradoxically, we get affronted when outsiders call our places filthy. Dirt, as in dust, mud, sand, gravel, may be mildly romantic. What is not is stinky garbage, poor municipal sanitation, thoughtless construction of roads and pavements, and bodily wastes on streets. Roadside eateries where food and beverage spills are wiped up with the same rag as the seats you are ushered into are not confidence-building.

Wastes have changed – in quality and quantity. People’s ways of dealing with them haven’t. The result is hillocks and streams of unsightly, and dangerous, garbage all over, particularly in celebrated places bursting with “culture”, unless the place has been taken under the wing of a foundation that cleans it up, restores it, and charges a fee to keep it visitable.

It is too easy to blame people for littering. But it doesn’t come naturally not to litter. The environment — physical, and socio-political — plays a vital initiating and maintaining role in such practices. If there aren’t user-friendly urban infrastructure designs; good urban sanitation policies, facilities and enforcement of rules; handy receptacles for wastes of different sorts; reminders at points-of-decision while the new behaviour is learned; and inspiration from role-models, not to mention pride in one’s home and surroundings, it is too much to expect people to keep their neighbourhoods clean, particularly when they have spent years adapting new wastes to old styles of disposal, e.g., flicking a plastic wrapper away like they used to flick the leaf and blade of grass that held snacks together in the old days.

This is a failure of intersectoral collaboration, preceded, unfortunately, by failures of each sector’s work. The tourism department puts its resources into organising visitor-friendly guided routes and schedules to showcase the architectural beauties of a place, and gets dismally let down by a set of other government departments, e.g., the local governance, traffic police, roads and buildings. Some more thought and concerted action are needed to make places habitable, visitable, and worthy of their attractive tags. 

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