Laudable, but go beyond symbolism

The launch of the ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Gandhi Jayanti day was appropriate because Gandhiji believed that cleanliness was next to godliness and was even more important than freedom from the British rule.

The prime minister also appropriately launched it from a Valmiki basti in Delhi whose inhabitants are the country’s traditional cleanliness workers. The programme is not new though. All past governments have had some kind of it or the other under different names and have spent large funds on it.

But the country has hardly become cleaner and better. The need for cleanliness and sanitation has been a recurrent theme with Modi. He had highlighted the need for building toilets in all schools and to provide sanitation for all citizens in his Independence Day address. He imagines a Clean India by 2019, the 150th anniversary year of Gandhiji’s birth. The Mission will spend Rs 1.34 lakh crore in villages and Rs 62,000 crore in towns for this.

The prime minister wants all citizens to set aside two hours every week for cleaning up their environment. The prescription runs the risk of becoming an empty ritual for bureaucrats, compulsory task for captive students and nothing in particular for most others. Cleanliness should not be set to a time table to be followed off and on, or according to convenience.

It is a state of mind and habit that should inform actions and practices always and everywhere. Personal cleanliness and public sanitation are inter-related and should become a way of life at home, on roads and in public places.

There are social, cultural, educational and economic factors at work in the evolution of good sanitary standards in society. The role of caste and class distinctions and educational and economic development are important in this respect. Societies where sanitary standards are high have taken long years of efforts at official and other levels to achieve them. They also have a strong system of laws and rules to support and realise the idea of clean public spaces.

Practical problems will also have to be reckoned with and addressed. Building toilets is only one part of the task. Filth and waste which are removed from homes and elsewhere should be processed, recycled or destroyed, and facilities should be created for this, especially in towns and cities. Civic bodies have failed in this till now.

The Mission should encompass all these tasks and meet the challenges by creating public awareness, laying down rules and procedures and setting up facilities and infrastructure. It should go beyond the symbolism of a prime minister with a broom in hand and the statistics of large funds in action.

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