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Personal cleanliness and social dirtiness

Imagine a remote Indian village inhabited by 10 farmers engaged in dairy business and each owning their grasslands mainly used for grazing cows. Interspersed between these well fenced privately owned grasslands are village roads that link the farms to the huge empty lands, some grassy, some others with small shrubs and unpaved pathways owned by no one in particular or owned by the faraway and absent Dilli sarkar.

For generations these farmers would let their cattle graze their grasslands part by part each day in rotation. In this way the grasslands provided long term fodder for the cattle and good profits from the dairy businesses.

One day, a farmer’s daughter returns home with an MBA degree to take over and modernise her father’s ancestral business. Armed with ideas like cost minimisation and profit maximisation, she is worried about the low rate of growth and profits from the ancestral farmlands. Since there are huge and untouched village grasslands, she feels that she can build a milk processing factory on her private farmland, while grazing her cattle on the village grasslands. It is a brilliant masterstroke and the profits of her agro business begins to be much higher than ever achieved by her ancestors.

The lady’s achievements and consonant lifestyle do not go unnoticed by the other farmers in the village who all decide to ape the lady’s modernisation strategy. All the other villagers use their private lands to set up ancillary industries that depend on the first lady’s milk processing factory. The villagers’ cattle are now free to roam and graze at will on the common village grasslands.

Since all the 10 farmers’ cattle are grazing freely on the village grasslands, the amount of grass available begin to dwindle very quickly and along with the hungry cattle the villagers too begin to feud with each other for grazing rights on the common grasslands. Hungry cattle also lower the milk production of the village and the industrial complex which is built on the assumption of uninterrupted and increasing amounts of milk supply start to make losses.

When each farmer acts in one’s own self interest without any concern for others, it leads to the destruction of the social environment which hurts all inhabitants of that area, including the ‘self-interested’ farmer. Thus, rational economic behaviour by each individual farmer results in a common loss of livelihood to the group. This phenomenon is known to students of economics as the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is a good model that could help explain Indian attitude towards cleanliness. We traditionally mock at the personal hygiene of other races, while taking great pride in our own body cleansing routines. Yet, in India, it is very rare for any individual to be far away from dirt, spittle and grime, whatever be the economic status.

Here, the cleanest of individual personal spaces are often found in close proximity to waste dumped on the streets, outside the factory or even outside the residential door. Just like the villagers in the above story whose self-interested and apposite behaviours laid barren their common grasslands, we will discover that our ability to dump our personal waste into our common social spaces has led to unhygienic conditions and poor health for most of our countrymen. Hence, if our living spaces have to become clean and hygienic, we cannot only behave in a self interested manner. Thus, only if we extend our obsession with personal cleanliness to include cleanliness in our common and shared social spaces, can we have a cleaner environment to live in. So, how do we do it?

Each one of us behaves responsibly, corrects the anti-social behaviour of others and we also pressurise the municipal authorities to do their job too.

‘Easier said than done’, is what I hear you muttering. I never said that it was going to be easy. The other option of course is:

“Don’t do housework: after a few years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” – Quentin Crisp.

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