A clean manifesto: Toilets before temples

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 24, 2015 10:15 IST

India Shastra is a collection of 100 articles and essays by writer and politician Shashi Tharoor. A portrait of contemporary India, it takes into account the dramatic change in Indian politics with the ascent to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. An excerpt from the book.

I landed in Romania on Gandhi Jayanti - Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, 2 October 2014 - to attend and address the Bucharest Forum, only to be greeted by a flurry of messages. The Prime Minister's Office had been trying to reach me while I was airborne. While I was travelling and uncontactable, the PM had gone ahead and announced his invitation to me to join a panel of nine prominent Indians to promote his new Clean India campaign (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan). Some in the media, inevitably, were trying to stir up a controversy: I was the only politician, and worse, the only Congressman, on his list. What did this portend? Was I defecting to the BJP? Would my party be furious if I accepted?

I was honoured, of course, by the invitation. Which Indian worthy of the name would not be humbled to be tapped by his prime minister for a national cause? ... A clean India would benefit all of us, and I was delighted, in principle, to support the prime minister's initiative. At the same time, as I also said in accepting his invitation, I am not a fan of tokenism, and I was worried the campaign would descend to symbolic photo opportunities for grandees who would never touch a broom again after 2 October.


Book: India Shastra Reflections on the nation in our time

Author: Shashi Tharoor; Aleph; Rs 695; PP 473.

Clean India is a great campaign idea, but the real challenge will be to sustain it beyond a week of photo ops. The prime minister asked those who joined him at the campaign launch at Rajpath to take a pledge to 'remain committed towards cleanliness and devote time for this' and to 'neither litter nor let others litter.' That pledge will have to be honoured not just for a week, but every day for the rest of our lives.

As for the Congress party, it initially reacted maturely to the announcement, with former minister Rajiv Shukla rightly decrying the silly speculation about 'Tharoor inching towards the BJP'…Later, however, the party decided that the prime minister, given his somewhat confrontational campaigning style, was the wrong person to espouse a Gandhian cause: the Mahatma had always insisted on means and ends being pursued in the same spirit. As I, too, reminded the prime minister on Twitter, the Mahatma's idea of cleanliness was not only literal: he also spoke of cleanliness of the heart, soul and spirit, and so a campaign on his birthday would have done well to pursue an India cleansed also of bigotry, sectarian hatred and communal violence, as well as clean streets.

At the same time, I was aware of Mr Modi's pronounced interest in sanitation issues. Every once in a while a story slips through the media net that might have received more attention at a different time. With all the media in mid-July focused on the Budget (and the Railway Budget before it), very little attention was paid to an intriguing item that emerged from the prime minister's meeting schedule.

A week before Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the 2014 Budget to the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi met Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in Delhi...But what I found most striking - and deserving of much more attention than the media gave it - was the news that the key issue Modi asked Sandberg to help India with was sanitation.

Public hygiene was, of course, one of the topics that candidate Narendra Modi had raised in his election speeches, and it featured among the issues mentioned by the prime minister-elect in his first public address in Varanasi after his victory. Many will recall the backlash he received from his usual supporterson the Hindu right when he declared some months before his victory, echoing Congress minister Jairam Ramesh, that toilets were more important to him than temples.

….On the face of it, it's an odd request. But the prime minister confirmed it was raised, in his own Facebook post: India intends, he declared, 'to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary year [2019] with a special focus on cleanliness and I spoke to Ms Sandberg on how Facebook can assist us in this endeavour'… There isn't much detail on offer from Sandberg herself. Sure enough, she publicized the meeting on Facebook.… Let's also remember that the Swachh Bharat campaign is an attempt by PM Modi to give a new fillip to a national effort of successive governments - one that has failed to achieve its objectives for years. It was the Congress party that gave the nation a Rural Sanitation Programme, which in 1999 was changed by the first NDA government to a Total Sanitation Campaign, with equally modest results. The UPA government in 2012 subsumed that into a Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, with the objective of making the nation Open Defecation Free by 2022. Modiji, who acknowledged the work of previous governments, has advanced the UPA's deadline by three years and given the effort a national visibility that sanitation has not enjoyed before.…The PM's personal involvement, his Twitter feeds, his Walkathon and the reach-out to nine Indians are intended to enhance national awareness of the campaign. It reminds me of the mass movement that brought Kerala to full literacy, as volunteers fanned out to remote hamlets, leper colonies and tribal hutments to reach the unreached. That's the kind of sustained effort that will be needed to make Indian clean.

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