Journalist | Writer | Analyst
3 October 2014
Make no mistake, Swachh Bharat is a laudable goal and the Prime Minister has done well to make it a priority. Even if the compulsory pledging added a goofy touch to the Abhiyan, making the ordinary citizen conscious of her or his role in ensuring a clean India is surely a good thing.
That said, the harsh reality must also be recognised: that the anti-litter campaign being hard-sold as the central part of the ‘Swachh Bharat’ operation will do nothing to clean up the squalor that the majority of Indians live with thanks to decades of official neglect, inaction and callousness.
Indeed, for the hundreds of millions who live without proper access to running water (forget about its potability) and a sewerage system – two necessary conditions for basic sanitation in urban areas and as well as the countryside – the idea that the cosmetic wielding of brooms by volunteers for two hours a week will provide cleaner and healthier living conditions is a cruel joke.
Let us be honest in recognizing the problem of cleanliness at the outset. Urban litter – the target of choice for most politicians who have wielded the broom as part of the campaign – is actually the least of the problems from an urban sanitation point of view. Yes, litter and trash look unsightly, but – like the green screens the Gujarat government erected to keep Ahmedabad’s slums out of Xi Jinping’s during his recent visit to the city – it is also easy to find a cosmetic solution for it. The real challenge begins when litter and trash are all swept up and have nowhere to go because few Indian cities or towns have invested in proper garbage collection and disposal systems.
The problem with the way in which the Swachh Bharat campaign has started is that voluntarism is not being deployed or encouraged where it would be most effective – at the household level, where trash must be minimized, recycled and segregated. Instead, individual action is being sought where there is actually need for organized collective action by a state or municipal body in the collection and proper disposal of garbage.
Disposal itself poses a huge problem because existing landfills are poorly located and designed and are already bursting at the seams.
With India’s urban population set to grow at a rapid rate, Modi’s campaign could simply end up relocating the problem of filth to backyards elsewhere unless the endpoint of the process is not worked upon with great urgency.
In his 1937 paper ‘The Fantasy of Dirt’, Lawrence Kubie may have been right in berating human society for treating ‘soft’ and ‘wet’ dirt as more ‘dirty’ than dirt that is ‘hard’ and ‘dry’. It is, therefore, easier to get volunteers to sweep someone else’s dry trash than wash their dishes or toilets, something a Gandhi could do but not any modern day politician. And yet, sewage treatment and disposal is surely the single biggest sanitary challenge of our times. A public campaign can make people change their behaviour but it cannot alter or stop the metronomic rhythm of bodily functions. We can stop chucking garbage on the street or using plastic but the call of nature will always have to be answered. Because politicians never cared to plan for the urban poor, crores of families in towns and cities across India live beside open drains, with few toilets and no running source of water to clean themselves or their environs. Where sanitation pipelines exist, the raw sewage that flows through them usually ends up being dumped untreated into rivers and water bodies.
In rural and rurban India, the problem is equally acute if less visible. While both the Modi government and the Manmohan Singh government it replaced have spoken of the need to end the practice of open defecation, it should be obvious that the binding constraint is not necessarily access to toilets, but water and a system for disposing of fecal matter. In the absence of the latter two, those toilets that exist often go unused or add to the cleaning burden of women or Dalit workers. There is talk of waterless toilets but designing and producing them on the scale required will surely require state intervention.
Here, Modi must move beyond spectacle to substance, and address the mismatch between his government’s promise of sanitation for all by 2019 and the meager increase in funds provided by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. All his first budget offered was a mere six crore rupees increase over the previous budgetary allocation of Rs. 15,260.70 crore. As long as the Prime Minister doesn’t put the exchequer’s money where his mouth is, a ‘Swachh Bharat’ will remain out of reach for India’s poor, even if high-profile public spaces are spotless.
Put simply, a clean India will require modern sewerage in urban areas and piped water for every rural and urban settlement. Without this infrastructure, the mass sweeping of streets every few weeks or the opening of toilet blocks will accomplish little. A clean India also needs a professional system of garbage collection and disposal. This system need not be centralized, and may be more effective if run at the neighborhood or ward level. In the longer term, it requires not the chimera of new ‘smart cities’ but the retrofitting of existing cities with proper masterplans.
It should be obvious that any modern system of urban sanitation requires professional workers with proper pay, entitlements and equipment, not the haphazard use of underpaid staff working under contract in unsafe or unsanitary conditions. In this context, is worth asking whether Modi or his advisors paused to think about the symbolism of launching the clean India campaign from the Valmiki Colony in New Delhi. Sure, Gandhiji stayed there awhile during the freedom struggle and the Mahatma encouraged everyone to help make their environment clean, but his messaging was primarily aimed at those in the caste hierarchy who believed in untouchability. By starting the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan from a basti of Valmikis, who have been locked into the occupation of cleaning by the caste system despite 67 years of democracy, what message was Modi trying to convey? That the Valmikis are the designated cleaners of India? That the Valmikis are the ones who need a Prime Ministerial lesson in cleanliness the most? If the purpose was to dignify the labour of sanitation workers, the PM should have made concrete commitments to improve their working conditions.
Does Modi have the will to see the through the kind of reforms a Clean India really needs? So far, there is little evidence to suggest he even recognizes their importance. That is why the performative aspect of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was so important. Apart from the immediate mileage the Prime Minister himself derives by picking up a jhadoo for a few minutes, the voluntarist message he gave also serves a longer-term political purpose. By the time the next election comes around and most Indians find themselves without the promised sanitation and clean environment, they will be told to look inward and ask themselves why they failed. Rather than pointing their finger at the Prime Minister.