From spitting betel juice to phlegm, spitting in public places is quite common in India, especially in the northern states. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently spoke about it.

If you walk through the narrow, crowded lanes of Old Delhi, people spitting betel juice on the streets is a common sight. Walls, pavements and staircases of government and residential buildings, especially in North India are often stained red with the extracts of paan (betel leaf) and tobacco. Spitting while driving, from running vehicles, is very common too.

Many attempts by the government to discourage people from spitting in public spaces have proved ineffective. Bangalore based activist Odette Katrak, 57, co-founder of a citizen volunteer group called Beautiful Bengluru (now called Beautiful Bharat)  remembers an instance when her little daughter was disgusted after her ball caught someone’s spit and turned wet and slimy. Seeing that Katrak wanted to change things.

Katrak is someone who has always tried to bring about positive change in the society around her. Katrak has worked in the field of behaviour change as a consultant both as a soft skills trainer and then working to improve traffic indiscipline when she lived in Gurgaon, Delhi. In Bangalore, she is associated with spearheading the ‘Beautiful Bengluru’ campaign that was aimed at making public spaces in Bangalore cleaner and worked towards zero litter. She and her team worked to make the Bangalore Flower show, an annual event, a zero litter event.

“Spitting is not only gross and unhygienic but one of the major reasons for the spread of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases in the country. India has the highest number of TB cases in the world, with about 40 percent of the Indian population infected with bacteria causing tuberculosis. The spread of most airborne diseases is attributed to aerosols and droplets spread through coughing, sneezing and spitting. 

Stains caused by people spitting chewable tobacco are seen on the outer wall of a house in New Delhi, India.
Stains caused by people spitting chewable tobacco are seen on the outer wall of a house in New Delhi, India. (AP)

With the advent of the pandemic and our emphasis on sanitising and masking, I was in my kitchen washing my hands, when I looked out of my window and saw a man spitting on the street. I realised that we had not addressed the problem of spitting which can also spread disease,” says Katrak.

Katrak started the  ‘StopIndiaSpitting’ campaign in March 2020.  With her volunteer group ‘Beautiful Bharat’, she put together a petition to the Prime Minister of India, to make spitting in public spaces a punishable offence. In a couple of weeks, they had more than 41,000 signatures and their petition went viral with many tweets asking for action. In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned that people should stop spitting in public spaces, in his monthly radio talk called Mann ki Baat.

 “This will increase basic hygiene and help the fight against Covid 19,” said the prime minister.  Spitting became a punishable offence on April 15 2020.

Katrak gives the example of the 1918 Spanish influenza when spitting was common in Europe too and it was an awareness campaign against spitting in public that helped end that habit. Katrak has worked with youngsters and made videos reworking old English songs like ‘Imagine’ with a message against spitting in public spaces. They also made a rap song in Kannada, the local language, as well as animated videos to spread the message, and led awareness drives collaborating with bodies like Rotary Clubs, from May to September. 

In this Aug. 30, 2013 file photo, a laborer spits out tobacco as other rest on sacks of food grains at a wholesale market in New Delhi, India.
In this Aug. 30, 2013 file photo, a laborer spits out tobacco as other rest on sacks of food grains at a wholesale market in New Delhi, India. (AP)

Spitting nations

Ross Coomber, who is a professor of sociology at Plymouth University, has done extensive research on spitting nations and his findings suggest that spitting in public is an "acceptable" cultural norm in India, Indonesia and China. 

In India, the habit has a gender dimension too. Women are rarely found spitting in public, while men show no shame or remorse in ejecting a gob of phlegm or spraying betel juice from their mouths.  

Katrak also brought in celebrities from film icons to police commissioners and doctors to endorse their campaigns. They have distributed small posters that say ‘No Spitting’ with signs and explanations in 14 regional languages and can be stuck outside apartments, houses and shops. Katrak also organized an awareness rally collaborating with  Beautiful Bengaluru, Namma Bengaluru Foundation, and a Rotary club, where marshals and volunteers took part.

Katrak explains why her campaign is called ‘Stop India Spitting’ and not confined to only the offender. 

“Many people in India believe that spitting is necessary to clear saliva just like urine and excreta. Actually, saliva has digestive enzymes and should not be expelled. Awareness is key. Just a penalty is not enough of a deterrent. We have to change behaviour, so if we see anyone spitting, we have to tell them why it’s harmful and attempt to change their behaviour.  The reason why it existed in our country for so long is that we have tolerated it. I always befriend the spitters and talk to them and explain that they are spitting a pool of germs. Even if one person talks to one spitter, there will be a chain of positive change,” she says.

An NGO did a survey across 750 respondents around the country in July 2020, to find out the public attitude towards spitting in public spaces. 

“While most respondents said they would turn a blind eye before the advent of Covid-19,  93 percent of the people said  Post Covid that they would ask the person to stop, explaining that spitting spreads Covid,” she says.

Katrak’s passion is what drives the movement as their campaign is a completely voluntary movement,  with no external funding. A school student from Gurgaon helped them to make an animated video which was translated into regional languages and is now being used by NGOs and even government bodies. Katrak has collaborated with community radio stations, NGOs, various organizations like Hasiru Dala which works with rag pickers. “People who clean roads are exposed to spit and vulnerable to disease more than others, and we have made more than 13500 families aware of why one should not spit in public spaces.”

“Change is slow but visible. What started as a simple petition has now morphed into a national movement, with us connecting to local partners across states. I think the pandemic is an opportunity for us to raise awareness about spitting and go towards a spit-free India. At least that way our children will inherit a cleaner India” says Katrak.