Clean up with a conscience

Published: October 9, 2014 - 13:55 Updated: October 13, 2014 - 15:19

The Prime Minister envisions a ‘Clean India’. Will it just remain an ambitious dream or can Modi deliver?

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

Prime ministers do not usually step out of their offices with, literally, a broom. Narendra Modi, en route to launching his “Swachch Bharat” campaign on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, stopped by at a police station and began to sweep the compound. Other ministers in the government had started their campaign much earlier — in front of TV cameras. They wielded new brooms in areas that did not need much cleaning up. Their effort may border on the farcical, but there is no reason to take Modi’s resolve casually. He gave a sharp, passionate speech that dressed up Gandhi as the new symbol of sanitation and hygiene.

Cynicism comes easy to us Indians after the bad deal that we have got all these years. Only a few schemes of the many that have been announced by successive governments have delivered. The rest have only been eyewash to satisfy auditors or fool the masses.

India is dirty, stinky and terrible. More people defecate in the open in India than anywhere else in the world. Worse, a religion that believes that even shadows can pollute a twice-born is guilty of dirtying more than other faiths. It may hurt the feelings of many keepers of the Hindu faith, but more Hindus defecate under an open sky than Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. Due to this, there is more infant mortality and stunted physical and mental growth amongst Hindus than other religious communities. This fact has been known to the government for long years, but it has lagged in putting in place a policy that targets religious communities due to chauvinists that don’t want any interference in their affairs. Even if it means telling them not to crap in the open!

When former Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh made the statement that “Toilets are more important than Temples”, many of those who today swear by Modi went and peed on Ramesh’s wall. Modi has now repeated what Ramesh said a year ago and, hopefully, there will be greater acceptance amongst those who take even sane advice as an intrusion into their faith.

The Prime Minister has rightly insisted on providing a toilet for every Indian by the time the Mahatma’s150th birth anniversary is celebrated in 2019. Girls drop out of school in the absence of toilets and water. Most rapes in the countryside take place when women are stepping out to relieve themselves. The Badaun incident is a case in point. In recent years, women are refusing to marry into households that do not have a toilet, but these are early days.

Cleaning India is a very complex issue as it involves 1.25 billion people belonging to different cultures, habits and economic attainment. There is so much poverty that the state just cannot make demands on them as to how they should lead their lives until it is in a position to help.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reminded people that poverty was the greatest polluter. Her son, Sanjay Gandhi, launched his own Five Point Programme that may not have included a programme for cleaning up the country in as many words, but quietly began to target slums and other so-called eyesores. In 1976, he accompanied the then Delhi Development Authority’s Vice Chairman, Jagmohan, and said that a cluster of slums was concealing the beauty of the Jama Masjid. About 70,000 slum-dwellers were removed and relocated across the river. His move was resisted vigorously, leading to police firing that resulted in the death of about 150 people. Due to censorship, these details never really came out in the open.

The purpose of recounting this incident is that there is a strong likelihood that the Swachch Bharat campaign could be misunderstood in the absence of technical solutions that this campaign needs as well as a roadmap of how it has to be accomplished. In his October 2 speech, Modi forcefully made the people of India, represented by those present at Delhi’s India Gate, take a vow that they would neither “dirty the place nor allow anyone to do it”.

The Gandhian way would have been to not make people clean their environment under duress, but to make them realise why it was important to keep it clean. Gandhi would not have engaged in tokenism and would have lived up to his dictum of ‘being the change you want to be’. The fear is that violence may break out amongst residents in colonies or amongst communities over this issue of preventing people from dirtying a place.

Modi may invoke the name of Gandhi, but he is unlikely to be very patient with those who are taking their own time in interpreting his orders. What needs to be seen is how he will go about cleaning a country that is so comfortable littering. According to some, it is a `62,000 crore project. Modi tried to sell it as a potential business opportunity to NRIs who had come to hear his soaring speech at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Even the US government has offered to participate in this grand plan to clean India.

Broken down, this campaign involves fixing so many small and big pieces within the system. It would mean cleaning up rivers, cities, villages, the air and what have you. It would also need garbage mapping and disposal. The government would have to do more than merely transferring garbage from one place to another, as happened on October 2. It will have to decide how the garbage has to be disposed of — by burning, recycling or burial. A survey of major cities will show that the landfill sites are overflowing and there are not enough incinerators to burn garbage. Attempts to set up waste-based power plants as in Timarpur, Delhi, proved futile when it was discovered that our waste had low calorific value. At that time the Indian government did not have the courage to import garbage from abroad.

The project of cleaning rivers is indeed gargantuan. It is so easy to blow up all the money on this project, as happened when Rajiv Gandhi was in power and launched the Ganga Action Plan. Within no time, the river had become a sewer again. There is plenty of global experience in cleaning up rivers and water bodies. The Indian government could just embrace best practices and see how it could be replicated all over the country.

The bigger issue is who will clean the country — everyone or the Dalits or the lowliest in our social hierarchy. If four-fifths of our society pollutes and dirties the country and the burden to clean up falls on the oppressed then we can give up hopes of a swachch Bharat. Although technology will help in ridding the taboos surrounding these jobs, what is really needed is a major religious reform movement that
liberates people from the burden of their birth and lends dignity to labour. Only then can we achieve the clean India of Gandhi’s dreams.    


The Prime Minister envisions a ‘Clean India’. Will it just remain an ambitious dream or can Modi deliver?
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews