Swachh Bharat: Preposterous Dream or Plausible Reality?

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is a noble effort aimed at ridding India of all the dirt and filth often associated with it. But can India truly attain this goal?


It’s Friday, the 3rd of October 2014, and I stand by one of the busiest roads of the national capital surveying the garbage strewn all across the footpath. “So nothing has changed, after all”, I think to myself, “Old habits do die hard.” ”Shouldn’t the impetus generated yesterday have translated into something concrete at least one day after all the furor and celebration?” “Maybe we should just give our citizens a bit more time.” This game of counterarguments continues inconclusively.

India celebrated an unusual Gandhi Jayanti this time. Gandhi Jayanti has generally been the most disregarded national holiday. With the festivities accompanying Independence and Republic Day not surrounding it, Gandhi Jayanti goes off only as smoothly as any other holiday. This year, though, Gandhi Jayanti was accompanied by the formal commencement of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, aiming to rid India of all tangible dirt and filth to bring her at par with the best international hygiene standards.

The timing of this event can certainly not be questioned, with it serving the purpose of having been not only a holiday, but also connected with one of Mahatma Gandhi’s basic principles, that of cleanliness. This, accompanied by an effective publicity campaign and the fact that cleanliness and hygiene has forever been possibly the second greatest downfall of our country, ensured that everyone connected with the mission.

An event was held at India Gate, complete with the presence of the Prime Minister, who certainly surprised everyone by launching an Ice-Bucket-Challenge-like campaign, nominating nine of the biggest names in most fields to propagate the mission. The papers and TV channels were awash with images of netas wielding the broom, for once, and posing for the cameras, even as all parties tried to extract some political mileage out of the mission. Everybody was full of praise for the man who has been among the most popular Indian Prime Ministers to date, for at least touching upon the issue that has potentially been India’s Achilles ’ heel. And so the day ended.

There weren’t too many who asked ‘now what?’

The process of truly realizing a clean India neither starts, nor ends with the government. Had it ever been so, we wouldn’t even have needed this mission. India is no stranger to sanitation campaigns. Among the first of these was the Central Rural Sanitation Program, started in 1986, which was later merged with the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) of 1999, with the aim of realizing a ‘Nirmal Bharat’ by 2012. When this deadline could not be met, and pretty badly so, TSC was incorporated into the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan, setting the deadline at 2022. All these campaigns have been absolute failures.

Perhaps the only novelty of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan lies in the fact that it focuses not only on rural sanitation, but also on cleanliness in the largest of cities. Still, the onus of ensuring that the campaign is successful lies almost entirely with the common citizen of India. The process of achieving the goal of a clean India not only deals with concrete steps and policy matters, but dwells right into the abstract. More than laws, it is the mindset of the common Indian that requires change.

The present generation has probably not seen a time in their lives when the practice of careless littering was not being followed. So much so, that this has perhaps become a part of our culture now, having become one of the few practices common all over the country. This mindset of the Indian demographic is old enough to be traced back to the origins of the caste system. Cleanliness, for us, has traditionally remained limited to our own home, with the purportedly unhygienic clean-up job, too, being reserved for people of the lower castes. Thus, this habit of someone else cleaning up for us only comes to us naturally, and given that sixty-five percent of India’s population was born after 1980, during probably the worst phase of our careless attitude, one can imagine the part of our population of 1.21 billion inadvertently and carelessly causing litter through the length and breadth of the country, untouched by laws or rules, unseen and unregulated.

Swachh Bharat - Preposterous Dream or Plausible Reality ?

And own up, we have all done this at some instance or the other in our lives. It never takes too much of a thought before we flick the odd piece of garbage down the balcony, on to the pavement, or right out of the car window, down the middle of the road. Littering our own streets with garbage has become an inadvertent activity now, one that nobody gives a second thought to. We have been ‘programmed’ this way and learn from what we see, and we have seen (and done) worse, during our times. And the most common reason we given for this is the lack of designated equipment to dispose our garbage into, i.e., dustbins.

Those of us who have toured abroad have never failed to notice the saaf surroundings. What goes unnoticed is the presence of trash cans at every short distance (of course, we too take due care to look for one abroad-we’re programmed for that, too). Dustbins, if nothing else, drastically increase the guilt factor involved in littering around a place that might otherwise remain perfectly clean. Dustbins might be that one small tool that cause the most radical of differences, at least in urban areas. Of course, the need for the greater policy decisions, such as the reform of the municipal solid waste management and collection processes, is also great, but this smallest of steps can act as just the boost needed for bigger steps to be initiated.

But the true essence of India does not lie in our few urban areas; the true reform required is in our rural regions. The problem of an unhygienic India cannot be attributed even to the poverty- there are countries far poorer but cleaner than India. Sixty percent of the world’s population that practices open defecation (OD) hails from India. Our Prime Minister’s election cry of Devalay se pehle shauchalay (toilets before temples) could come in really handy here. But it is not as if building toilets solves the problem- there’s an even bigger issue that follows.

Each of the previous sanitation initiatives focuses, more than anything else, on building latrines in rural areas. Still the rate at which this infrastructure was provided was painfully sluggish, stagnant at one percent for the last decade. Only half of India’s rural population has access to a lavatory yet, and at this rate, it could be 2040 before all of India is truly ‘Nirmal’. But this brings along with it another obstacle- half the lavatories built under these missions lie idle and unused. Our rural population sees no reason to shift from a practice that has been practiced for generations to an altogether new one. Here is where the question of change of mindset comes in. It is not before they realize the detriment that OD is and the advantages latrines provide that they will start to use the one built for them. This only goes to show that providing funds is not the end of the government’s job, contributing to change of attitude toward acceptability of the new infrastructure is only as important.

But worse, it doesn’t end at that either. The waste generated through this infrastructure and the extra waste generated through other measures taken needs somewhere to go. India does not have enough infrastructure to treat the current waste being generated, leave alone the additional. Our current infrastructure for sewage and solid waste treatment fails to meet the inflow, often leading to untreated waste being discharged directly into rivers. Given the government’s immense dedication to the Ganga cleaning mission, this contributes to an uncomfortable conflict of interest.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is one such mission for the success of which change needs to start from the citizens, right up to the highest office of the state. The faintest hint of a lax attitude from either of these or intermediary players could render the mission failed. Optimism is the precursor of success, and optimistic is exactly what the PM and we citizens are. The Government has put the right foot forward, and it is now up to us to try to match steps with it. A change in our attitude is the one reagent that can bring a change in not only how our country looks, but how it is viewed globally.  However this mission pans out, though, in terms of cleanliness, it’s no longer business as usual.

The deadline for the completion of this mission is pretty steep- the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019. The cause is both novel and noble, all it requires is for us, the common citizens of our country, to change and cooperate, and who knows, we might have an all new India, come 2019!

Why India Is Dirty and How to Clean It
Gandhi’s India: Only for the International Stage?


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