Swachh Bharat: a scheme or a pipe dream?

If Prime Minister Modi is serious about Swachh Bharat, he must provide leadership in converting the slogan into a viable multi-faceted programme

Who does not want, or hasn’t wanted, a clean India the public places of which are today probably the dirtiest and the most polluted in the world?

The question one must ask is: why it has been so, and what has not been done to change the situation for the better? Otherwise, Swachh Bharat will only remain a slogan, like Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao.’ She was very upset when I once asked her in all humility what exactly she wanted to hatao (eradicate), what she wanted to replace it with, and how.

It is strange that while much has been said about Swachh Bharat, no one appears to have pointed out that Indians are traditionally and culturally clean people. If the country looks dirty to a visitor — as it truly is — the biggest culprit is the government which is unclean in ways more than one!

Just drive from the old airport in my city, Hyderabad, to the new airport via Tarnaka (a distance of 50 km). Sidewalks, if they are there, are broken, encroached, or otherwise dysfunctional. There are mounds of mud and garbage on the side of the road which have been there for years. The buildings acquired to widen the road have not been demolished and have remained abandoned for years.

There is leftover construction material such as broken stones that line the pavements of roads. Whenever there is construction, one often finds unnecessary encroachment. In many places, road dividers are non-functional. The poor condition of roads can lead to numerous health issues for users. Even elite residential localities do not seem to be free of these problems.

Non-functional municipality

The fact is that there is no professional expertise in the Municipal Corporation to keep the city clean. Combined with total apathy, it creates an irremediable situation.

This deplorable situation is compounded by corruption. There is virtually no supervision when a civil work contract is given by the Municipal Corporation or Municipality, for example, for road repair. It is the responsibility of the contractor to remove all the construction material or waste, but it is just pushed to the side of the road to save money that would be otherwise spent on its transportation and disposal — and no one cares. Not surprisingly the only places that are clean are the military and the defence areas. Common garbage bins, where they are provided by the government, are overflowing, besides being an eyesore. The fact is that once you leave areas which come within the purview of civil administration, India is substantially clean. We are thus a country where ‘private’ places are clean but ‘public’ places are dirty.

It is not that the citizens in our cities and towns do not contribute to public filth. They do and there are two reasons for that. Firstly, there are no waste bins in public places where people can dispose their waste, so they simply throw it on the road or the sidewalk if it exists.

Secondly, it is about human psychology. If the place is clean and maintained clean, the tendency of a visitor or a user is not to make it dirty. On the other hand, if the place is already dirty, the tendency is not to worry about making it dirtier. In this connection, let me share an experience. In Hyderabad, we have a scientific research laboratory called the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB). It has been around for more than 25 years and has had an unbroken tradition of clinical cleanliness.

Once a year, it has an open day when more than 10,000 visitors come to the laboratory. At the end of the day, when all the visitors have gone, the place is just as clean as it was to begin with. The visitors simply use the waste bins which are always within sight no matter where the visitors are in the campus. Deep in their mind, they do not want to dirty a place which looks spotlessly clean. Kolkata metro would be another example.

How then can we talk of Swachh Bharat when the majority in the country has no access to clean toilets, and the environment is so badly polluted? As far as I know, there is much talk but no detailed workable solution to provide clean toilet facility to every family — either in villages or in cities. Every politician wants to do it but nobody really does it or even has an idea of how to go about doing it. Operationally, it is not easy.

As an example of the government’s apathy toward clean toilets, let me cite the case of the erstwhile Paryavaran Bhawan in the CGO Complex at Lodi Road, New Delhi. I used to visit the sixth floor of this building to attend a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), generally once a month. The only common western-style toilet on this floor had no seat for as long as I could remember. If I needed to use one, I had to request for permission of the Additional Secretary of the Department of Environment and Forests who was the Chairman of GEAC, to allow me to use his private toilet. And to expect toilet paper in a western-style toilet in a government building is to ask for the Moon.

Needed, a holistic definition

Then, there is the question of environment. Can we really have Swachh Bharat when our environment is so polluted?

Finally, we have to consider the state of our villages where 70 per cent of India lives. Can we talk of Swachh Bharat, ignoring what happens in our villages where poverty is the greatest polluter? Can any scheme of cleaning up our villages be viable if, for example, we do not provide village children access to high-quality schools? Doesn’t education, including vocational education, provide the greatest resource for alleviating poverty? Thus, to think of Swachh Bharat as an achievable objective would be a folly unless equal emphasis is laid on several other objectives such as high-quality universal education.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is serious about Swachh Bharat, he must provide leadership in converting what is a slogan into a viable multi-faceted programme, no matter how difficult or challenging it is going to be.

(Pushpa Mittra Bhargava is Chairman, Council of Social Development, Southern Regional Centre.)

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2020 4:16:34 AM |

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