Broken Hearts, Shattered Monuments and a Mass of Litter

#1 Aug 29th, 2006, 22:18
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  • Rob_The_Pom is offline
I’ve just arrived home from my third trip to India with the usual case of dysentery in tow, and I must admit to feeling a little disillusioned after this trip. Now I love India more than I can put into anything resembling a piece of articulate prose, but at this moment I’m not entirely sure that I want to return anytime soon. I encountered a few things that hit me rather hard in the ‘love of India’ department, and I’m not entirely sure how I want to deal with them.

The first of these issues was the vandalism of certain monuments. Having visited Humayoun’s and Sarfarjang’s tombs on a number of occasions I was well aware of the graffiti inside the tombs themselves. The fact that the amount of graffiti had grown, and no effort had been made to restore the damage was disappointing but understandable considering the amount of work the ASI, who almost always do a first-rate restoration job, have to do.

What I found at the Taj Mahal though did not resemble understandable in any shape or form. We all know that the Taj is suffering from the effects of pollution from local industry, and I cannot comment on whether this criminal situation is improving or not, but what shocked me on this occasion was graffiti carved into the marble itself. The extent of the damage has not yet reached the proportions of many other Mughul monuments, but there on the external inlayed marble were a number of carved names. It may be that I just did not notice them on my last visit, but seeing the name ‘Sachin’ carved into the greatest monument on the entire planet did nothing to enhance the experience. What can be going through the mind of someone who does this? It beggars belief. The arrogance of the culprit, who I assume in the case of ‘Sachin’ was not the Little Master himself, is utterly astonishing. If the vandalism of the Taj was, indicated by the carved names, the work of domestic tourists (talk about shitting on your own doorstep), the second act of destruction was clearly not their sole responsibility.

The church of St John in the Wilderness was, for me, one of the most romantic places that I had ever visited. Its setting in the misty forest outside McLeod Ganj was so poignant and evocative that I had decided that if I was ever to marry that it would be the place to do the deed. This overly-romantic fantasy was smashed to pieces on my recent visit. With the increased popularity of McLeod Ganj as a tourist destination there has been a proportionate increase in litter. As you walk down to the church piles of paan wrappers and cigarette cartons line the road (and I’ll talk more about rubbish below). At least this could, and I emphasise ‘could’, be cleaned up.

What cannot so easily be repaired is the damage to the church itself. My memory may be failing me, but there seemed to be a fraction of the headstones standing since my last visit. Sadly, the pile of fractured and fragmented monuments next to the church bell suggests that it is not my memory which is at fault. The church door has also been replaced with a roller-shutter since my last visit. It is a sad day when a holy building has to be protected in this way. (Is it me or is a lack of respect for the holy buildings of others increasingly ubiquitous in our globalised world?)

These desecrations almost disappeared from focus when compared with the other assault inflicted onto St John’s. The iron front gate of the church originally featured a plain, star-shaped emblem. Since my last visit someone has decided that the star needed a little extra decoration. The star has been painted white with a few blue lines. The nicest Anglican church in India now has a Star of David on its front gate. I have been fortunate enough to visit some of the greatest holy buildings of every major religion on Earth, from Judaism to Taoism, and Buddhism to Islam, and I have behaved respectfully at every one of them. (Well, okay, I’m sorry I admit I have dropped the odd the word of profanity inside a couple of Catholic cathedrals, but that was after I was barged out of the way by a train of Japanese tourists. I felt pretty bad about it afterwards.) This desecration of St John’s is akin to mounting a cross on a synagogue, putting an idol or two in a mosque, or knocking off Buddha’s nose; it is reprehensible and shows the perpetrator as morally bankrupt.

The second issue is rubbish. As I mentioned above McLeod Ganj has become a popular tourist resort, and as a consequence now features a multitude of young men treating the place as a motorcycle racetrack (I lost count of how many times a young child was nearly flatten by someone on a motorbike), and massive piles of rubbish. Now, it would be entirely incorrect of me to put all of the blame for the rubbish on domestic tourists, backpacking-types (or as now prefer, having almost reached thirty-six, budget-conscious travellers) like me are to blame as well. Now I have certainly never thrown a paan wrapper or a plastic bottle to the side of the road, but I have adopted an equally-guilty solution (and I am certain that I am not the only one). I often leave my rubbish in my room, even if there is no bin. In this way it goes out of sight and out of mind, I attempt to abnegate myself of responsibility. I am almost certain that it is not taken away in a municipal dustcart, but added to the pile. I suppose that at least I am able to delude myself for a time.

In this instance the blame does not entirely sit on the shoulders of the person dropping the litter, but also with the municipal authorities. Why? There is absolutely no reason that it has to be this way. For the perfect example we only need to look at Shimla. Now I hope I am not romanticising the place or creating false memories, but I cannot recall seeing any significant street rubbish on either of my visits to Shimla; it is kept clean and stiff penalties are place for litterbugs. The rubbish issues in McLeod Ganj and similar places could be solved with only a small amount of effort, and this must be done before it is too late. There are plenty of people in India searching for work and maybe spending a little on employing street cleaners rather than another batch of F16s would be money well spent.

The second is infinitely more depressing. I was lucky enough to visit the Valley of Flowers. It is a magical place. I would have spent many more hours there, but the weather was coming in and my friend decided that she had had enough. Two incidents in the valley encapsulated everything that horrifies me about the rubbish issue.
I was expecting the valley to be clean a pristine, but as I hiked in I noticed the odd sweet packet or paan wrapper. I started picking them up and soon filled a pocket. I then came across a pile of foil meal containers, plastic bags, napkins and other assorted meal waste piled in the middle of the track. I was stunned, as were two businessmen from Mumbai who were hiking in with us. I took a plastic bag from one of them and filled it with the detritus. I carried the bag throughout my hike in the valley; it was well filled by the time I returned to Gangoria. Why would anyone leave rubbish here? There is nobody here to clean it up. The only workers in the valley have their work cut out just to maintain the path without having litter to worry about.
I was to get my answer a short time later.

As I hiked further into the valley I caught up to two domestic tourists who were spectacularly underdressed for a Himalayan valley at 3400m. As I got closer the young man turned away from his girlfriend and threw a sweet packet into the flowers. I lost it.
‘What the f**k do you think your doing?’
‘What?’ said the shocked man.
‘Why did you throw that away?’
His answer was astounding, and sent me into apoplexy.
‘There’s nowhere else to throw it away.’
‘What! This is a f***ing world heritage site. You f***ing well carry out what you brought in you bloody idiot. Too many beautiful places in this country have been ruined by idiots throwing rubbish away with no thought. I’ve collected this bag of f***ing rubbish already, and I’m here to enjoy this place not to be a f***ing dustman. Now f***ing pick it up.’
I stormed off down the trail with steam coming out of my ears.

To be fair to the man he later caught me up, apologised profusely for dropping litter and told me that he had picked it up. I do not feel in the slightest bit guilty for my loss of temper I only hope that he considers the consequences of dropping rubbish in a place like the Valley of Flowers. There are too few of these sites left on Earth, we must be responsible and look after them.

I returned home with the rubbish and the graffiti at the forefront of my thoughts. I must admit, like almost all of us who visit India as a tourist, to culpability in some of the rubbish issues, but I am at an utter loss as to why anyone, wherever they are from, would damage an ancient monument or pristine natural site. They are part of our planet, and that belongs to each and every one of us regardless of our race, religion or nationality.

As I wrote this I was concerned that I was launching an invective against the behaviour of domestic tourists in India, and that I do not really have the right to criticise; it’s their country not mine. That is certainly not my intention and I certainly hope that I have shown that international tourists, including me, should accept their chunk of blame. (If we look across the border into Nepal the state of Everest’s South Col demonstrates that stupidity is an international commodity).

At the start of this piece I was asking myself how I should deal with what I have discussed above. I am still not sure, but I have written this piece because I love India and its people, and I could not think of anything worse than the Taj Mahal being carved into message board or some of the most beautiful places on Earth disappearing under a pile of plastic litter.

Rob The Pom
August 29th 2006

PS. Thanks to anyone who kept with me to the end.
The solution to your troubles is at the bottom of a glass.
Last edited by Sama; Aug 30th, 2006 at 03:54.. Reason: paragraphs
#2 Aug 29th, 2006, 22:39
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  • lotus blossom is offline
well, for starters, i am deeply sad to hear that the taj has been vandalized in this way. is nothing sacred anymore? i guess that someone wanted to leave their own legacy behind.

i visted mcleod ganj last year after a four year absence. one of my favorite places, i returned to a paradise that was now littered, smelly and overrun with vehicles. i nearly got run over by a van zooming up temple road. whilst i was there a gang of purse thieves were grabbing purses from the tourists. a german woman was beat for hers. i could not beleive how much a place that i loved had changed. i left there feeling that it has become a place where both the tibetans, and the kashmiri businessmen, feel trapped. no one seemed happy to be there. neither was i.

i, like rob, love india, and particulary the taj and mcleod ganj, and out of that love comes sadness over the wanton desecration of ma india. certainly, there is nothing disrespectful about feeling and naming that. one must not forget that we are stewrds of the land, whereever we are in the world.
Not all who wander are lost
#3 Aug 29th, 2006, 22:47
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  • Sama is offline
thanks, rob, know that you are not alone in your feelings. I felt the same way after my second trip (regarding trash.)

the amount of trash disheartened me on the Pondicherry beach, but even more so in the Kodai hills. I did a day tour and when we'd stop at different spots in these beautiful hills, I almost had the same reaction as you. My feeling at the time was that the domestic tourists treated these beautiful areas as nothing more than some type of tacky amusement park. I see nothing nice about stopping to view a pine forest where the ground is littered with paper and plastic and film canisters. It was disgusting.

I just don't understand the disrespect for nature, the disrespect for your HOME. I am sure that nobody would want a visitor to come into their house and start throwing trash around, so why are the outdoors any different? Why don't the people AND the government get it? Seems to me with so many people in India, some could be employed to clean up these natural areas.

When I saw the movie Mystic India with its grand scenes showing temples and outdoor dances and the main character walking through the forests and the towns, I thought, what happened to all the garbage? It was all picked up to film this movie, why can't it be done on a daily basis??
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Last edited by Sama; Aug 30th, 2006 at 04:23..
#4 Aug 29th, 2006, 23:24
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Bristol, England
  • blackbird is offline
It's not that westerners are all that good about rubbish, as anyone who's picked their way along the tideline of a British beach will know. But I do think Indians are far worse, and unfortunately it would seem to me that the culture doesn't help, as most people of caste think that waste disposal is only fit for the dalits. Ideally the culture would change, but in the meantime it might be a good thing if the tourism industry in India recognised that it would be in their interests to employ people to take it away to a relatively unobtrusive landfill site, with wages so low surely they could afford it. There's probably little point waiting for the local authorities to get their act together. If the people who make their living from tourism can be made to understand that collectively they will lose business, then it becomes more likely.

Anyway Rob, good on you for taking your stand, and picking up all that garbage, and I'm sure that the India bug will nevertheless draw you back there before too long!
#5 Aug 29th, 2006, 23:30
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  • Shiver me Timbers is offline
Without wishing to create a hullaballoo, I would say that the main problem regarding the litter situation is the local population and authority, and not the foreign tourists. I have come to this conclusion through my own experiences, and through....

First, we were camping on Avis Island in the Andamans for three nights, we had a lot of rubbish which we collected in three black plastic bags. When it was time to leave, our fisherman arrived to bring us back to the town. He took one of the plastic bags, and emptied the contents straight into the beautiful torquoise sea.

We went ballistic at him, but the guy started laughing, as if we were joking, and then shrugging his shoulders when he realised we weren't. We eventually gathered all the stuff again, and found a place to dump it in the town.

Yes, foreign tourists are capable of doing incredibly ignorant and stupid things, but I really think when it comes to littering, they are not major offenders at all. If this was the case, wouldn't we see similar situations in busy tourist centres in other countries? I have seen nothing in my travels in Europe or Asia that compares to India in this regard.

There seems to be a general ignorance in the country that must start at the top (the government) and work its way down. Neighbouring Pakistan is nowhere near as bad for litter as India, and from whjat I've heard, neither is Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka.

Sorry if I offended any of you, I know many Indians are obviously as concerned as Rob, but his post reminded me of a side of the country I'd rather have forgotten.
#6 Aug 29th, 2006, 23:36
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  • blackbird is offline
Your right Conor.... Nepal isn't half as bad, and Bhutan is like Switzerland in comparison.... As far as I know, no matter what countries they have been to, everybody is shocked the first time they go to India by the amount of rubbish all over the place.
#7 Aug 29th, 2006, 23:56
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  • PeakXV is offline
If you don't have the vision or wisdom to understand the repercussions of dropping a single piece of litter ... especially in the presence of mimick prone young child then perhaps a stiff (blow a hole in your pocket book type) fine is all that will halt and eventually reverse the process. However, somehow I don't see that as a priority for Indian authorities in the near future. I think you get the paddywacks in Singapore for littering - another good idea!?
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~
T. S. Eliot
#8 Aug 30th, 2006, 00:16
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  • Nick-H is offline
In one thread or another it comes up, over and over, that Indians do not care for the environment. Nobody gives a second thought to litter.

Big generalisations, and I know that there are exceptions (and that it varies also by locality) but this is what I see around me in Chennai.

My experience of Kerala is that it is a lot cleaner and tidier than here --- even one's feet are not as black at the end of the day in Trivandrum.

It is not just the plastic and the paper. Unused or pending building materials are left on the road, where any breeze or passing car creates a dust storm.

On my less-than-happy days here, I have been known to look at the streets, see how people drive, how people litter, and decide that nobody here gives a damn about anyone else
Life gets aadhar every day.
#9 Aug 30th, 2006, 03:54
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  • maddog is offline
Amazingly what people would generally regard as the backward hinterland of rural India are often the cleanest places. Sort of blows a hole in the lack of infrastructure argument.
#10 Aug 30th, 2006, 04:18
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I dreamed, I quit, I left..... now finally in India :)
  • sticky is offline
I dont want to sound like im counting, or trying to bigup my self, but i have traveled to quite a lot of countries and India is by far the dirtiest.
It sadend me alot to see it really, because its also one of the most beautiful places I have been. Well it would, if it werent for all the rubbish!

I tried and tried to not litter. Carried my rubbish with me when ever i could, but when faced with the attitude of the majority of the indians I saw towards littering, you kind of get disheartened in the end.

I used to always put my litter in the bin when I was on trains, until I realised that the bins are open on the bottoms. The rubbish just falls straight through onto the tracks.

Of course you cant say that all Indians dont gare less about the environment, but the sheer volume of litter is testament to the fact that most dont.
Even when people are sweeping the fronts of their houses or businesses they usually just sweep it onto someone elses patch.

I have been to China twice. Once five and a half years ago and once a few months ago, and on my first visit I saw quite a lot of litter (nothing like in india though), but on this visit there is alot less, despite the growing industrialisation and use of plastics.
If china can change its ways why cant India?

Flashpackers: Backpackers doing it in style.
#11 Aug 30th, 2006, 05:56
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  • alext is offline
I share a lot of the feelings already stated above.

I remember once I was in Vagator and had climbed up to the ruined Portuguese fort. When I got up there I was really excited to see the views of the sea, however all I could notice was all of the trash. It was just a carpet of trash in parts - appalling. And I am sad to say I was so depressed about it that I just threw my water bottle on the ground as some sort of immature protest. The trash in Goa was quite obviously from westerners i.e. soda, beer cans, water bottles etc.

I do not intend to offend anyone if I do by saying this, but:
Unconnected to this incident, my Indian friend explained to me that the trash is a symptom of the caste system. It is expected that there are other (sweeper caste?)) people to clean up their messes so they just throw it on the ground anywhere. But obviously there are plenty of places where this type of labor organization is just not possible.
#12 Aug 30th, 2006, 06:56
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  • abracax is offline
If you want to see all of the things you detest - litter, negect of monuments, graffitti and dickheads on motorcycles - check out the Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad. I don't think it's a coincidence that the worst neglect seems to afflict muslim and christian monuments. As for the nature-walking litterbugs, they tend to be mama's boys from the cities who are used to having someone pick up after them. Fortunately, most of my favourite places in India are not associated with cities or unescorted tourists.
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#13 Aug 30th, 2006, 10:36
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  • BabeInTheWoods is offline

Silent example...

Good for you Rob. I too find it really disheartening to see the litter all over the place and graffiti on monuments, etc.

Years ago when my family and I travelled in the Gypsy Fairs here in New Zealand, we had one character among us who regularly dressed up in a set of tails and harlequin tights, with a clown face painted on. I loved to watch him walk silently around the Fairs, gracefully picking up rubbish and putting it in the bins. Inevitably within minutes there would be a gaggle of kids running behind him doing the same thing. Never a word was exchanged, but it wasn't needed.

Also, as we travelled our country, we often pulled into new towns and had to find somewhere to stay - usually inobtrusively, but that wasn't always easy, as we lived in a double-decker Leyland bus painted in green, red and yellow. The first thing we would do when we pulled up somewhere was send our kids out with a large rubbish bag each to clean up the area around us. Although we often couldn't see other people, the curtain-twitching in nearby houses always gave away that we were being watched.

I wonder what would happen if we travellers who love India - and there are many of us, always being watched - all did this wherever we went over there. As an ongoing, quiet campaign, would it eventually seep through and start a new awareness?

I'd be happy to start doing it. It might just become a seed planted with the kids anyway.

#14 Aug 30th, 2006, 12:45
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Chennai, India
  • Nick-H is offline
One of the things that I am not going to like about the area our new house is in is the empty plots. Empty plots equals dumping ground
#15 Aug 30th, 2006, 14:04
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  • anindya911 is offline
Sad, but very True!

All empty plots, streets, roads, drains, rivers, Trails, peaks has become garbage dump.

The surprising fact is that many experienced Trekkers too retort to littering. Few trekkers I met in Sahyadris believe fruits & vegetable wastes could be thrown off on trails, as they are biodegradable.

Very few people realise what they are doing

Let Your mind roam ...
and the body will follow!

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