Hygiene has never had anything to do with refinement or revolution in West Bengal. Profound anxieties regarding the state of culture or the dawn of a classless society have coexisted with the most stoic indifference to murderous pollution and engulfing filth. But the star-studded hue and cry over giving up tobacco have deflected attention from the other aspect of the new law in force since yesterday. It is now a punishable offence to spit in public places. Perhaps this will raise nothing but titters here, but what the law needs to do is strike terror. If civilization has not worked, then hypochondria might. At the root of the lack of public hygiene in India is the often superstitious obsession with keeping one’s own body and space clean at the expense of everything that is outside the boundaries of one’s person or property. Quite simply, this is the fundamental lack of a civic sense. And it informs everything from garbage disposal to spitting, hawking, urinating and defecating. The government, particularly the municipal and civic authorities, will therefore have to devise means of enforcement which do not involve an appeal to concern and consideration for others, or to such irrelevant sentiments as keeping one’s city clean. The penalties have to be harsh and they have to be exacted unsparingly. Also, the immediate context for the Asian anti-spitting campaign will have to be kept alive in public memory. This is where the hypochondria might come in handy. Even if the fear of SARS goes with the passing of the epidemic, other infectious diseases which might be transmitted through public unhygiene should be made part of the Indian civic imagination.
China has already started doing this, especially in SARS-ravaged Guangzhou and Beijing. But the best exemplum for West Bengal could be Singapore, whose punitive record with the enforcement of public hygiene is now quite legendary. Not only spitting, but littering and jaywalking are offences that are regularly punished. Smoking is banned in public places, and even where it is allowed it is an offence to put out cigarette butts on the ground. The sale, importation and possession of chewing gum is also banned and heavily fined. So is driving while talking on a mobile phone, and male vandals are given mandatory caning sentences. West Bengal will therefore have to work out a way of enforcing this act without violating its traditions of democratic freedom, so unlike Singapore. This is the spirit in which Calcutta’s taxi-drivers have worked out the perfect solution to mandatory seat-belts — a black strip placed across the torso like the sacred thread whenever there is a policeman in sight.