Mahatma Gandhi and clean cities

Since leaders will not lead, can citizens follow his 'Do-It-Yourself' example?

Updated - October 04, 2013 05:33 pm IST

Published - October 02, 2013 11:48 am IST - Chennai

Steering clear of the problem. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

Steering clear of the problem. Photo: G. Ananthakrishnan

This is a blog post from

The urban middle class has a deep desire to see clean streets, although its contribution towards cleanliness is weak at best. Just what is clean? Does clean mean the same thing to rich and poor? These are issues that lend themselves to intense argument.

There is something to be learnt in this regard from Mahatma Gandhi. On February 4, 1916, almost a century ago, he spoke at the inauguration of the Banaras Hindu University, at the invitation of Madan Mohan Malaviya.

At one point, Gandhi said he wanted to 'think audibly' and proceeded to recall his visit to the Vishwanath temple during that visit. Apparently disappointed at the dirty state of this house of God, Gandhi said, "Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character?" The houses around had been built without regard to any norms, the lanes were tortuous and narrow and of course, dirty. "I speak feelingly, as a Hindu," he added to emphasise his pain, asking whether the temples would be clean once the British had left the country, bag and baggage. (The speech has been reproduced in The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches, 1877 to the Present, edited by Rakesh Batabyal).

The answer is there for all to see. Neither temples nor other public spaces are free from filth. Neither leaders nor citizens are particularly engaged with the problem - of cleaning up our cities and towns with genuine measures. Reducing needless consumption, reducing waste, confining dirt to its designated place, cleaning up our rivers and lakes and treating our environment with greater respect.

On the question of clean-ups, it is well known that the Mahatma personally took the effort to achieve the change that he wanted to see.

In D.G. Tendulkar’s “Mahatma”, Volume Three, there is a reference to Gandhi leaving Patna in 1934, as part of his Harijan tour, for Orissa. At Champapurhat, he found that there was a dispensary on the grounds of the Gandhi Seva Ashram, and used that occasion to give a lecture on the need to rely not on medicines for a cure, but to prevent disease.

Diseases could be traced to errors, such as overeating or eating wrong foods, and therefore calls for self-restraint on the part of the ‘sufferer’, he said. He did not fail to emphasise the need to educate villagers on hygiene and sanitation. The true function of the Ashram, he said, was to show people how they could avoid disease.

What is most inspiring, is what happened next. Gandhi’s group immediately launched a mass contact programme with the villagers. “At the end of the morning’s march,” writes Tendulkar, “a batch of men and women from his party visited the Harijan quarters of the village near the camp, taking with them brooms and spades.” They talked about the “necessity of sanitation, about keeping their yards clean, of burying rubbish, instead of leaving it to blow here and there. When engaged in the talks, Gandhi’s party began cleaning up the basti themselves. They highlighted the need to prevent excrement lying in the open, as it attracted flies and spread disease.

It is of course too much to expect that our leaders of the present day, with their important global schedules and legions of followers, will go around the cities with their rising number of slums, and initiate a genuine clean-up. It is even more remote that they will pull themselves away from their market-focused pursuits and ineffectual, exclusive pursuit of GDP growth, to focus on the task of nation-building.

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