Authorities losing the battle against betel

It’s enough to make you want to spit. Efforts by Yangon city authorities to control the “undisciplined” ejection of crimson betel juice are just not working, officials say.

First they tried placing plastic boxes filled with sand at junctions and bus-stops. Their latest scheme is the distribution of more than 100,000 red plastic bags, into which betel users are encouraged to deposit the contents of their mouth. The bags can then be thoughtfully disposed of. But street cleaning staff report that not a single bag has been found.

None of this will surprise the most casual stroller, accustomed to seeing what looks like the blood-spattered results of murder and mayhem at every street corner, or the cyclist who approaches the open windows of a bus stopped at traffic lights with more than usual caution.

Tourist guide U Aung Pan feels he has to explain the situation to newly arrived tourists.

“They don’t like to say anything, but you can see from their faces that they don’t like it,” he said.

“I tell them betel chewing is ubiquitous here, and if they’re invited to a home they may even be offered some. I notice they try not to step on it as they walk.”

Under a 2013 municipal law, dumping rubbish, spitting betel saliva, general spitting and depositing chewing gum in public areas carry penalties of one year in prison or fines ranging from K10,000 to K500,000.

But the spitter has to be caught in the act, or evidence to bring a prosecution is lacking. Fining betel sellers has limited effect because they make enough money to cover fines, said U Cho Tun Aung, head of the Department of Pollution Control and Cleansing at Yangon City Development Committee. “The most profitable businesses in Myanmar are betel quid, cigarettes and drinking water,” he said.

Charged with the task of trying to control quid chewers, the department procured the betel spit bags, which are worth K12 each.

Department assistant director U Aung Myint Maw told The Myanmar Times, “Betel quid shops are afraid of selling the spit bags. We didn’t force them to do so, but we have to raise public awareness among both sellers and chewers to try to stop them spitting in the street. They can use the bag, but it has to be secure.”

In July the department distributed 57,000 bags, but most quid shops in downtown Yangon refuse to sell them. A second distribution of 75,000 bags followed. The waterproof bags are red, and measure 10 centimetres (4 inches) by 15cm (6 inches).

“Some chewers spit into the bag, then just throw it away. As it is not secure, it creates a nuisance. We tried to supply sealed bags,” said U Aung Myint Maw.

Other ideas that have been proposed include distributing the bags free, fining offenders and even forcing people convicted of reckless spitting to clean the streets for a few days.

The real problem seems to be the popularity of the habit, which is ingrained and widespread. It’s common to see three or four betel quid shops in a row at a bus-stop or market, and even many small suburban streets have their own local stand.

“We can only control this problem if people want us to. We have to explain to the public why we don’t want them spitting everywhere, then take action accordingly. It depends on the people,” U Cho Tun Aung, head of the cleansing department.

“Taking effective action after raising awareness of the law is better than distributing betel spit bags,” said tour guide U Aung Pan.

U Aung Myint Maw, assistant head of city cleansing, said, “We don’t force people to use spit bags. Our department wants people to spit betel in a more considerate manner. The bags can be recycled at least 10 times. But though we’ve distributed more than 100,000 of them, our cleansing staff have not recovered a single one.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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