Maharashtras Prohibits SpittingThe state government in Maharashtra approved a more stringent Anti-spitting law to take on this age-old but disgusting habit that seems to have become a fact of life in India. While a law against spitting in public places already exists, it has rarely been enforced, and therefore, it remains to be seen whether this new law is going to prove an effective deterrent to die-hard offenders.

Watch Out You Die-hard Spitter!

Under the new law, the first time offender will have to pay Rs 1,000 and will be made to do social work for a day like sweeping the floor at a government hospital or office. A second time offender will have to shell out Rs 3,000 and be forced to perform community service for three days. A third time or more offender will attract Rs 5,000 in fine and five days of community service.

Is This Law Really Going to Make a Difference?

Unlikely. The problem does not lie with the absence of law but in its stringent enforcement. Unless there is a genuine fear of embarrassment of being caught and having to go through the humiliating punishment, habitual offenders will continue spitting with impunity. After all, there was a law earlier as well but lack of enforcement left it on paper only, with no impact on those who have made spitting in public places their fundamental right.

The Strange Culture of Spitting

Spitting in public places has been part of people’s lifestyle in most parts of the world, though attitude towards the practice changed with time. What was once a lifestyle during the Middle Ages in Europe, subsequently came to be seen as vulgar and uncivilised in later years.

Strangely, spitting is also seen in some parts as a desirable act. In certain rural areas of North India, a mother spits on the side of her child as an act to ward off the evil eye or ‘nazar’, while in some other parts of the world it has been seen as a means to stay healthy by eliminating body waste. On similar lines, it was practiced in some East European countries, too. In Greece for example, people would symbolically spit three times, after complimenting someone. This was a gesture to ward off the evil eye.

Spitting into a ‘spittoon’, a vessel meant for spitting, was a common sight through most of the Mughal period and is still seen in some homes of India today, where the spittoon would be circulated amongst guests to spit out the betel leaf juice or ‘paan’ as it is locally called. However, with the deadly outbreak of influenza in 1918, the use of spittoons in the West was mostly done away with.

A Lesson From Singapore

Singapore in the 50s and early 60s was less developed than say Kolkata was at the time, and personal habits like spitting in public places, littering and urinating was as common then as it is today in India. It was only when Lee Kuan Yew, after taking over as Singapore’s first Prime Minister, made it a national mission to develop Singapore as a modern, vibrant and developed nation that Singapore was made to give up the bad habit.

Singapore solved the social problems like spitting, littering and urinating in public places by laying out stringent laws that was a combination of high fines along with imprisonment. This was backed with the necessary infrastructure that involved educating, monitoring and finally, catching offenders in the act. This worked on a society that was used to lax laws. It was high fines that hurt people the most and that is still the most effective deterrent in Singapore today, a city that world looks as a model.

Indians are frequent visitors to Singapore and other cities around the world. They remain extremely well behaved and adhere to local laws. So what happens when we get back home? It’s back to the good old ways of spitting, littering, urinating, breaking traffic laws, and honking wildly on the roads. The lesson from Singapore for India is that without high fines and stringent enforcement, changing personal habits of people is not going to happen.

The Seat-belt Example

Remember, a few years back when wearing of seat belts was made compulsory? The only reason most drivers and co-passengers continue to wear seat belts today is the fear of getting caught and paying the fine. In the early days of the campaign, one could not imagine driving a distance and not encountering a policeman checking for seat belts. It worked, and today we don’t have as many policemen on the roads to check but wearing a seat belt has now developed into a habit, albeit a good one!

Ditto, for bad habits like spitting. If we begin a strong public campaign where civil society, along with the police, persistently catch people in the act and hand out punishment on the spot, people will be forced to reform. Having adequate CCTVs in public places will further help the cause.

A Good Starting Point

The home is the best place to fight bad habits and if we are to truly bring in change, we must start with the children. Children are most open to learning and adapting and therefore, exposing them to healthy and clean lifestyle, not only at home but in public places as well, is a social imperative.

The Prime Minister draws inspiration from Lee Kuan Yew in his Swachh Bharat Campaign but would do well to include the fight against personal habits like spitting in public places, as part of his campaign. Maharashtra may have taken the first step towards the fight but its impact will depend on government’s commitment to enforce the law and the support it receives from common citizens, who wish to see a cleaner city, town or village that they live in. It’s time for change.