Mawlynnong markets itself as “Asia’s cleanest village”. It certainly is clean. Indeed, it is not inaccurate to call this little gem, nestled in the lush East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, spotless. A signboard at the entrance to the village warns you against bringing in plastic and trash (although local stalls sell packets of chips). The surroundings of every house – boring concrete or traditional bamboo cottage, rich or poor – are immaculate. Conical bamboo trash baskets hang from the poles of solar-powered street lights and outside tea stalls. The drains are similarly clean (though we did spot a discarded cigarette packet). I am certain there are other villages in Asia – particularly in the southeast – that are as clean, but I doubt any place in India is as spick and span as Mawlynnong.

The road to Mawlynnong, however, is another matter.

Plastic, chips and paan packets, bottles and other sundry trash lines both sides of the single-lane road. So many have been discarded that they have tumbled into the otherwise pristine streams. It is quite obvious that this litter is not from the locals. Khasi villages are clean, planted with flowers and lined with concrete pathways and proper drains, many built by villagers with funding from the national make-work programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme. Stand along the road to Mawlynnong – or go to any of the scenic waterfalls, cliffs and caves in Meghalaya – and it soon becomes clear who is littering: the Indian tourist, who has discovered this once-pristine corner of India and is assiduously trying to remake it in his image.

Almost every tourist trail in the otherwise clean Meghalaya is full of trash. Photo credit: Samar Halarnkar

The richer ones come in hired taxis, the rest in their vehicle of choice, a mini bus called the Tempo Traveller. And do they travel. Taxis and Tempo Travelers ferry tourists from railway station or airport to their eventual destinations. In the North East, a large number are Bengali or Assamese but others have made trans-subcontinental journeys from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat. They speak different languages and eat diverse foods – there are “Indian thalis”, Assamese and Bengali food and, of course, “pure veg” – but the one thing they have in common is a proclivity to scatter their refuse where they wish.

The Indian tourist’s disease of littering has always made it hard to keep public attractions clean. But as more Indians succumb to wanderlust, the country’s last pristine frontiers are being adorned with heaps of garbage. Every time I stopped by the roadside in Meghalaya recently, I found mounds of trash at my feet: at the magnificent promontory overlooking a deep valley filled with fluffy clouds, with the watery plains of Bangladesh beyond; at the foot of a series of waterfall plunging off a high escarpment; and just about everywhere with a proper road.

Equally ubiquitous were the signs for Swacchh Bharat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature nationwide clean-up campaign, but there was little evidence of any clean-up, except for slogans on walls. The problem with remote places is that they are just that – remote, with few organised methods of trash collection and disposal, made harder by the fact that the garbage lies along every road, kilometre after kilometre.

Empty packets of chips, plastic bottles and other trash litter the road to Mawlynnong. Photo credit: Samar Halarnkar

Nation of litterbugs

No clean-up, however, can help if India continues to be a nation of litterbugs. Currently, no place is too remote, too pristine or too sacred for the Indian tourist. What he hears about, visit he must. Where he goes, litter he must. And so, those who care will tell you of trash at Pangang Tso, a once-remote, high-altitude lake straddling the border between India and China in Ladakh. After it was made famous by the Aamir Khan movie The Three Idiots, a stream of idiots leaves behind what they bring with them, and there it remains because the shimmering, alpine lake has no garbage disposal system.

It is the same at the once mystical Butterfly Island, a little slice of sun-drenched beach paradise off the southern coast of Goa. I journeyed there once on a powered outrigger, and when we beached there was not a soul around. The beach was small and neat, the water a clear green. We felt like explorers, the first people landing on that distant shore – only to realise that neither were we the first nor was the shore any longer distant. Behind the large rock that marked the entrance to the butterfly shaped beach, there were piles of beer bottles, paper and plastic plates. Paradise had apparently been spoiled a long time ago.

Butterfly Island off the coast of Goa is pristine...
...until you look behind the sentinel rock on the beach. Photo credit: Priya Ramani

Why does the Indian tourist litter?

Because he can.

There is no one to stop him, no one to censure him, no one to tell him he is ruining his country’s treasures for current and coming generations. To be sure, there are signs everywhere; the most common one reads, “Do not litter.” The same tourist will follow these signs – mostly – in other countries because, well, everyone does, he does not want to stand out, and he perhaps wants to show he cares.

Back home, everyone is littering, he knows he will not stand out, and he does not particularly care. There are a billion like him, and as we know the Indian – especially the new Indian – believes there is safety in numbers. He may ardently support Swacchh Bharat – as long as he does not actually have to practice it. Above all, it must not impinge on his fundamental right to litter.

He will make an exception for Mawlynnong because the cleanliness is the reason for the journey, it is the main attraction. It is why he has hitched a ride on those trains, planes, automobiles and Tempo Travelers. So, he will rein in those itchy fingers and keep to himself the detritus of his roaming holiday. Once he leaves Mawlynnong, there is no longer any reason to feel constrained.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.