Few situations I encounter during my travel in India perplexes me often. One is the appalling condition of highways and byways in Kerala. The other situation is the scarcity of half-decent and clean restaurants, and restroom facilities. Major cities have many star hotels and good restaurants. However, along with the long stretches of highways, and in small towns and villages, especially outside of Kerala, such establishments are difficult to come by. In spite of many years of education, and acceptance of global ideas, we still face an uphill battle in the areas of hygiene and food safety.

This is the story of a typical restaurant in Kerala. It was the day before the Thiru Onam, traffic was hectic, and shops were crowded. En route to the major city near my village, we stopped for a late breakfast at a town in central Kerala that is at the crossroads of many inland places. The heavily congested town center was packed with vehicles of all shapes and sizes that were parked inconsiderately. Air was thick with diesel fumes, dust, and blaring horns. Roadsides littered with garbage. Muddy potholes and puddles from the previous night’s rain and unpaved slushy sidewalks posed a threat to pedestrians. Traffic lights were on the blink. Crossing the road was a risky business due to traffic.

The restaurant has been an establishment in that town since as long as I could remember. I have been to this restaurant many times during my college days. Old memories, enticing aroma of a piping hot ghee roast, and mouth-watering taste of sambar, once again drew me to that place after many years. I was expecting an updated place with a fresh coat of paint, a clean place with some new furniture, new cups, plates, and cutleries, and a modern outlook. Since it survived many years purveying tasty foods, I was expecting some sort of modern transformation as a natural progression. Alas, the place looked the same; nothing changed since the late sixties!

There were a couple of waiters in their not-so-clean-looking lungis, half-folded in typical Kerala-style displaying the checked undershorts, busy taking orders. The owner sat near the entrance in a partially enclosed place minding the cash box. A young boy, with a bucket in his left hand and cleaning rag in his right, was slowly cleaning tables. The rag looked 60 years old! Houseflies freely hovered around bits of food wastes here and there. A cornucopia of scent, from cooking to agarbathies, permeated inside. Customers came, ate hurriedly, burped, washed, lifted up the loose end of their lungi or dhoti, wiped clean their hands and lips, and left. A few used their handkerchiefs. The condition of the hand towel at the wash station was difficult to describe.

We found a few seats here and there. The stainless steel plates and tumblers; they looked weathered, dented, greasy, and unclean. For a moment, I tried to imagine how the kitchen would look like. Plastic covered tables looked wet, felt oily, torn in places, and faded. The aged-gray floor was wet and dirty. We hurriedly consumed our piping hot dosa, with hot sambar without paying much attention to anything else.

Similar restaurants, coffee, teashops, or ‘hotels’ are at every nook and cranny of every junctions, villages, and towns across India. The world around them has changed over the years, but they are still in a time warp with a yesteryear concept of sanitation and hygiene.

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Good hygiene practice invariably helps reduce infections

Compromising on hygiene creates an increased outbreak of illnesses that are otherwise preventable. Food and waterborne illnesses are very common in developing countries due to the lack of proper care and handling of food. It is not the lack of knowledge nor the insufficient awareness creates the situation; it is the lackadaisical mindset of the people on common cleanliness, and hygiene.

Consuming food or water contaminated with dangerous bacteria and other pathogens causes many, from simple to life-threatening, diseases. Contamination occurs at any stage of the food chain: from production, processing, retail, to the consumer level. When we handle and consume foods without much attention to hygiene, we expose ourselves to diseases. An array of illnesses from simple food poisoning to Botulism, Intestinal Cryptosporidiosis, Cyclosporiasis, E. coli infection, Haemorrhagic colitis, Hepatitis, Listeriosis, Salmonellosis, to Staphylococcal food poisoning are possible due to consuming unhygienic foods. Some of the illnesses may be minor inconveniences, but others lead to chronic and debilitating conditions, and a few others can be deadly.

Our personal hygiene attributes form the foundation of our healthy living. Good hygiene practices slow the spread of diseases. There are few simple steps to follow to promote good hygiene practices that could minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses. It starts with hand washing. Make it a serious point to wash hands with soap, and warm water frequently, especially after using the restrooms, handling pets, and while, and during cooking, cleaning and before and after eating. Bathrooms in many eateries are notoriously famous for unhygienic conditions. The following points on food handlings are very valid to prevent foodborne diseases. Cooking surfaces, cutting boards, utensils, pots, and pans need careful washing and cleaning. Likewise, clean raw veggies and fruits in running water before eating or cooking. Raw, uncooked, and cooked foods must be kept separate at all times if not cross-contamination is a real problem. Cooking foods to the right temperature is the right thing to do since undercooked foods, especially meats, and fish, are injurious to health. Furthermore, keep cooked foods, if not using right away, in the fridge for shorter duration and in the freezer for long-term use. The caveat is that when in doubt about the quality of food, don’t consume. Simple steps make a big impact on our health.

Cleanliness is a personal responsibility

The current mindset is mainly due to ignorance as people are unaware of the consequences of improper hygiene. Additionally, the ‘take it for granted’ mentality of the customers, and the ‘don’t care’ attitude of the shop owners, together with the ‘anything goes attitude’ of the staff play a role in poor hygiene. Lack of education and enforcement is another aspect that is missing in the cleanliness equation. It is appalling to see that we have a careless attitude towards issues that directly affect our health. This indiscriminate behaviour is not at all conducive to our wellbeing.

(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)