It came as a pleasant surprise when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat campaign on Gandhi Jayanti a little over a month ago, getting everyone from cabinet ministers to government officials and sundry politicians to pledge to keep their surroundings clean.
Taking a break from the usual symbolism of VIPs gathering at Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi at Rajghat for morning prayers, we were actually vowing to do something more meaningful. While appreciating the initiative, we also hoped that the drive wouldn’t get reduced to just another set of photo-ops.
Last week, photos of garbage being littered on a clean pavement before Delhi BJP leaders reached the spot armed with brooms to clean it up went viral in the media. Not many were surprised.
Delhi has long made peace with littering, like it has with symbolic initiatives. We have seen enough celebrities at the Yamuna riverfront, picking plastic bags from its dirty banks and disappearing as soon as their visuals make it to the newspapers and TV channels.
In October last year, after declaring Wednesdays as bus days for his senior staff, the then Union petroleum minister Veerappa Moily ditched his government car for the Metro. Voluntary use of public transport once a week was part of the minister’s fuel conservation campaign. Moily’s staff responded well, but only for a few weeks. The drive turned out to be a one-off celebrity jaunt for the camera. The babus are also back to commuting in their official cars throughout the week.
Celebrity endorsements work well for public campaigns because they help popularise causes. But campaigns like cleaning urban spaces, a dirty river or using public transport to unclog the roads and reduce carbon footprint are more than just getting a famous person picking up a broom or riding the Metro for a day.
One can’t lure people to do something without fixing the backend, systemic issues. For instance, no amount of prodding by a minister, who even walked the talk, albeit for a day, can get enough motorists to switch to public transport if the system is scattered in its reach, erratic in timings, and doesn’t ensure the first and the last-mile connectivity.
Likewise, the Yamuna can’t be cleaned by removing a few plastic bags one fine day, although a sustained campaign to stop people from dumping garbage and ceremonial offerings into the river would help. The city needs to stop offloading its entire load of wastewater and muck into the river and give it enough freshwater from its potable water quota to help it flow back to life. But this is something our celebs rarely spoke about.
Conveniently, the ongoing cleanliness drive is focused in a few, relatively cleaner areas of Lutyens’ zone. If our VIPs were really committed to this cause, they could have visited some community bins where garbage rots unattended for weeks on end.
In fact, a trip to one of Delhi’s many landfills, which are packed to capacity and are experiencing landslides due to vertical growth, would have given our VIPs a better understanding of the problem. Delhi is drowning in its own trash and there is no space to dump even the garbage our broom-wielding VIPs sweep up before the camera.
All gung ho about the campaign, the government should have pushed for laws for making recycling mandatory for residents because it is the only way we can reduce the trash we send to our landfills. Also, heavy fines for those who toss garbage around with impunity should have been on the clean Delhi agenda.
Unfortunately, successive governments have been silent on garbage management. We could learn from and provide institutional support to our rag-pickers, who have been doing what is essentially the job of the citizenry and the municipal staff. Delhi may well begin by picking one of them as the brand ambassador of the Swachh Bharat campaign to drive home the point that it takes a lot more than symbolic photo-ops to clean up cities.