In the past week symbolism has received a good press. Usually, it is associated with hypocrisy and humbug. Happily, the sight of our rulers equipped with mammoth jhadoos has aroused some hope. And to be honest, some laughter. What were these ladies and gents up to? How many votes would the gimmick fetch? Was this a crafty BJP trick to appropriate the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol? Or was it a serious effort to solve a serious problem? Some of these questions assumed more relevance when the aam aadmi noticed that the cleaners showed little enthusiasm for their task. Most looked decidedly grim, mobiles stuck to their ears, as they carried out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s orders.
The orders left no room for ambiguity: India had to become swachh by 2019, the year in which Modi’s term ends. Each citizen — it wasn’t clear if this included netas — would put in two hours a week for ‘voluntary cleanliness’ and the government would put in Rs 2 lakh crore.
In 1975, when Indira Gandhi dispatched some of the present BJP leaders to jail, her son Sanjay launched something similar. It came to grief, and cost Mrs Gandhi dear in elections. I am not suggesting the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will meet a similar fate. Given the PM’s record for results, it has a fair chance of success.
As a people we lack the culture of cleanliness. We mouth platitudes like cleanliness is next to godliness, but go no further. There is an interesting contradiction: We are painstakingly clean, but only selectively. I am not going to quote VS Naipaul on our careless shitting. Instead, I will print a passage from a classic written by a genuine India lover, James Cameron. His An Indian Summer, published in 1974, is gentler in tone and censure. “To an Indian the defecating squatters are technically invisible. He can deny their existence, with the limpid sincerity an Indian invokes when he is cosmically kidding himself. His rationalisation is that the Hindus’ dread of pollution makes them the personally cleanest people in the world. The paradox is that this is in its own way perfectly true”.
Cameron continues, “Hindu custom requires an obligatory daily bath and I have never been anywhere in India where it is not manifestly obeyed; in the most wretched and abominable quarters of the city, dawn finds the hungry derelicts and street-sleepers lining up at the stand-pipe for the meticulous body wash ritual. An Indian man or woman has to be lowly indeed not to wear fresh-laundered cotton on the body; however exiguous and worn the dhoti or sari may be, it is rarely soiled. Yet Indians of all varieties from the plump immaculate babu to the elegant housewife slumming in the bazaar, will promenade through streets of almost indescribable filth and neglect, littered with refuse and debris, gutters adrift with ordure, picking their way through the muck with a skillfully intuitive indifference, since they do not see it. Themselves in their person they are clean, all else is maya, illusion.”
I apologise for the over-long Cameron passage but it tells the truth brutally and exquisitely. Alas, the white man needlessly criticising alibi is not available. A few years ago, BS Raghavan wrote in The Hindu Business Line, “There’s no point getting infuriated about this. The general lack of cleanliness and hygiene hits the eye wherever one goes — hotels, hospitals, work places, railway trains, aircraft and, yes, places of worship.”
Gandhi went into great detail on the subject of health and sanitation. He wrote reams of stuff trying to educate the masses on hygiene. “I learnt 35 years ago”, he wrote, “that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt that in the West. I believe many rules in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East…the cause of many diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing excreta anywhere and everywhere. I therefore believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature and clean articles for use at that time”.
Are we a dirty nation? Can we live in filthy surroundings with ease? Or do we pretend not to notice the dirt, thus enabling us to escape responsibility for the filth all around us? Do we make a fetish out of personal cleanliness in order to ignore public squalor? Weighty questions, troublesome answers.
While keeping our bungalows and flats clean, the garden immaculately manicured, we appear quite relaxed as the garbage collected from our house is deposited outside on the road. And here is the really disturbing thing. In the past two decades the subject of public sanitation is missing from the agenda of every political party. Recently, open defecation received some traction, not because it is shameful and disease-prone, but because it luckily got associated with rape and sexual molestation — which is a hot button issue.
The task Modi has undertaken is of gigantic dimensions. Mind-boggling statistics are thrown up. For instance, India generates 130,000 metric tonnes of waste per day. For the prime minister to reach one of his targets by 2019, his government must build over 6.6 million household lavatories every day.
In this Himalayan-sized muck resides a Hitchcockian mystery: The case of the missing dustbin. It just disappeared from our civic life. There have been occasions when empty water bottle in hand, I have searched far and wide without finding a dustbin. Frequently, I have had to bring the refuse home for disposal. Why our municipal authorities don’t put dustbins in public places remains a puzzle. Perhaps in Swachh Bharat, we should include the slogan: Dustbin lao, gandagi hatao.
Vinod Mehta is the editorial chairman of the Outlook Group
The views expressed by the author are personal