Civic sense or social ethics is a rare commodity in India and in Shillong, it is the rarest. This can be corroborated if one takes a walk around the city and down the alleys in neighbourhoods. Litter on roads, stench of urine, patches of vigorously spat out betel leaf juice on walls and treating public space as private property are glimpses of the civilised society we live in. The worst part of our being “modern and western” is reluctance. We care less and fret more, introspect less and criticise more, act less and speak more.
As we boast of the beauty of Shillong, we forget that as citizens we too have the responsibility to preserve its pristine beauty. A weekend drive on Shillong bypass confirmed the citizens’ amnesia. The sight of broken bottles of liquor, plastic wrappers and chips packets all along the road breaks the heart and takes one’s attention off the picturesque view. I chose to stay confined in the car. As I looked around from inside the vehicle I was appalled to see a man get down from a car and urinate on the roadside, his eyes straying in the oblivion to avoid a stranger’s gaze. During my five-minute confinement in the car on the road, I encountered two more bold men who are trained to urinate in public without qualms.
Using public spaces as toilet is a common habit among Indians, including Shillongites. The entire stretch from Civil Hospital point down Keating Road smells of urine and it is impossible to even stand there for a minute. One reason for such audacity is that the city lacks clean public toilets and in case of emergency one has to be bold. But as citizens, have we ever raised the problem and demanded this basic amenity? No. “In fact many people do not even consider it a problem. And the government is least bothered,” said a 34-year-old concerned citizen.
If we walk across Shillong city, we will notice open dump yards in many pockets. Last year, the government had installed dustbins in several parts of the city and within weeks of that, some dustbins were missing. Those which have been spared are overflowing with garbage. Some citizens even dump their household garbage in public bins. And many do not care about a bin and happily throw odds and ends on the road.
“You cannot always blame citizens. Many a time I do not get any dustbin to throw coffee cups or packets and I have to carry them with me. The garbage truck in our locality comes irregularly. So it is not always about our civic sense. It is also about the government’s apathy,” a 21-year-old college-goer argues.
Does that mean we will throw our garbage on the road? I wondered.
According to 15-year-old Ilari Jyrwa of Christian Academy School, a responsible citizen should keep the city clean and not throw rubbish in the open because “it is not nice to litter”.
Most people avoid speaking out when they witness unacceptable behaviour, she says while recalling a recent incident.
“I was returning from class when I saw an aged man throwing rubbish on the street. I did not confront him but I picked up the garbage and threw it in the dustbin on his watch. He stood there in embarrassment,” Jyrwa says, adding that action speaks louder than words.
The wall along the long stretch from Civil Hospital to Rhino Point was recently painted and was repainted by paan spits in just a couple of days. Some of the walls in the city have met the same fate or worse. There are marks of smudged lime on walls on which instructions are scribbled not to do so. A visit to a government office confirmed that we are incorrigible. Some bravehearts had spat on the notice that read ‘Do not spit’.
I again wondered whether at all we deserve good things and development.
Development is a two-way process where both the public and the government work hand in hand for the overall growth of the country. But in our country, every time the government takes a step forward, people take a step back. Is our civic sense going down with time? I continued my walk in search of an answer.
“People here follow the system because they are afraid of the penalties. For example, drivers wear seatbelts because it is mandatory now or else they will face fine or other punishment,” says Jyrwa.
However, she also adds that not everyone follows rules out of fear and there are still good citizens out there who follow orders sincerely.
A shop owner in Laitumkhrah says she completely agrees that development is a two-way process. The government opts for development and the public contribute as well by taking care of the resources.
Not many are concerned about the society and with this attitude no wonder that theatres, parking lots and other public places are in such pathetic condition.
I was walking from Upper Lachaumiere to Don Bosco Square when I felt drops of water falling on me. When I looked up I saw a woman cleaning her hands out of the window of her room without even noticing whether a passerby might be showered by her blessings. I was disgusted and surprised at her attitude and stared at her thinking what to say. But instead of apologising, she rudely gestured at me which meant, “What are you looking at lady? This is Shillong.”
Vandalism is another evil which is not only destroying the state but also spreading hatred. Whenever there is a public rally and things turn out sour, people go on a rampage. There are cases where miscreants have destroyed public properties for no reason.
A 29-year-old doctor from Jowai says people break or destroy things thinking that it is not theirs, “which is completely wrong”.
“We pay taxes maybe not directly but we do contribute to the treasury of the government. Hence we are destroying the stuff which is ours. Such people need to be educated,” she says.
The young doctor, who has a clinic in the city, says as individuals residing in this beautiful place, “we all have responsibilities and it will not be wrong to say we have more responsibilities than the government”.
“Political power in the government will change but the indigenous people of the state will always remain the same. I have seen young educated people littering. I wish I were vocal enough to stop them,” she adds.
The doctor who practises in the city adds that parents must teach their children or wards to be a responsible citizen at home.
From stains of paan to scribbling on walls, the city has seen it all.
“A wall in my locality is full of scribbles. Filthy words are written on it. I happen to cross it every day. One day I saw a group of children staring at the wall and trying to read it out loud. I was quite mortified,” says a resident of Lumsohphoh.
The footpath near Don Bosco Square in Laitumkhrah was partially covered with filth on Thursday. When I asked the person in a nearby shop, he said, “I did not throw it so why should I pick it up? I keep my surroundings clean but I am not responsible for others’ rubbish.”
The pile of waste was just 10 steps away from him.
Nonetheless, there are Good Samaritans like a young taxi driver. “I try to contribute to the environment as much as I can. Every time we go for picnic, we make sure that the place is cleaned before leaving,” he says.
A 26-year-old resident of Shillong says no country is perfect. “I am not saying that I am a responsible citizen but I would like to change that. We got to begin from somewhere, why not change the society into a better place by taking the first step.”
He adds that he has seen places around the city and on the outskirts where garbage is dumped. “It is both harmful and shameful. When I go out of the state, my friends tell me that your state is one of the cleanest and you are so lucky to live amid nature. I feel embarrassed.”
We, the citizens, have to remember that “democracy is not simply a licence to indulge individual whims and proclivities”. It also makes us accountable “to some reasonable degree for the conditions of peace and chaos that impact the lives of those who inhabit one’s beloved extended community”.