Almost exactly 55 years ago, on November 23, 1959, in one of his first speeches after becoming Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, under whose long tenure the city state became the most developed nation in South-East Asia, announced the Movement to Clean Singapore, which he said was aimed at making Singapore one of the cleanest and healthiest cities in Asia.
That announcement and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, which he announced in his Independence Day address this year, are uncannily similar.
As everyone knows, Lee’s movement has worked. One of the chief attributes associated with Singapore, besides its remarkable economic development, is how squeaky-clean that city state is.
In India, Modi kicked off the Swachch Bharat programme by wielding a broom to sweep Delhi’s streets on Gandhi Jayanti, an example and a photo op that was quickly emulated by other politicians, celebrities and film-stars.
The objective of Modi’s plan is to have a really clean India by October 2, 2019, which will be Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. The question is: Will that happen?
Even in Singapore, with a population today of 5.4 million (that’s 0.45% of India’s) it wasn’t easy. Active propagation — through posters, school programmes and community efforts — helped but so did hefty fines. Anyone caught littering in public areas was fined S$500 (at today’s rates, nearly Rs 24,000).
Litter bugs were named and shamed by publishing their photographs in the media. Even today, long after the movement has become a part of Singaporean life, signs bearing the legend “Do Not Litter, Fine S$500” can be seen in public places.
In India, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan will be a long and arduous trek. First, because India is not tiny Singapore. But also because littering, sadly, is like a birthright for Indians. Regardless of where in India we live, how rich or poor we are, or what we do, we litter.
And, we have no qualms about co-existing with dirt: look at our streets; our places of worship; our markets; or our residential areas. Even the Swachch Bharat movement is becoming a sham.
Last week, cameras caught prominent citizens, including politicians, in central Delhi sweeping a pavement after it had been customised with dirt! India will need far more from its citizens, particularly the influential, than the symbolic sweeping of litter, no matter whether the garbage is genuine or fake.
The malaise lies much deeper. Recently, when the Swachch Bharat movement was extended to India’s foreign missions, in one consulate in the US, stacks of papers were found in disuse — water had seeped into them over decades and they had solidified into bricks so hard that flame-guns were used to loosen them up, proving perhaps that it doesn’t matter where our dear countrymen go, their habits don’t desert them.
In India where it’s difficult to fine even traffic violators, a hefty fine like Singapore’s on littering could be nearly impossible to impose.
When one sees wanton littering — plastic wrappers thrown out of the window of a luxury car; or garbage hurled on to the streets from the upper reaches of a swish condominium — it is tempting to consider anarchic solutions.
In Sick Puppy, a 2000 novel by Carl Hiaasen, an eco-terrorist named Twilly Spree takes revenge on a corrupt Florida land developer (who is also an inveterate litter bug) and his wife by hijacking a garbage truck and dumping its load on to their expensive open convertible, covering it under a fetid mountain of rubbish.
Hope may still exist, though. The key to achieving a genuinely Swachch Bharat may be in our schools. Changing the behaviour and attitudes of older Indians may not be easy.
But India’s children could well become the harbingers of that change in our attitude towards keeping our cities, towns and villages clean.
That is why Modi’s Clean India Movement should begin at the bottom, with our children. That’s probably the only hope for it to succeed.