Minister Jairam Ramesh comes up with inconvenient truths. Straight off his rolled-up cuffs.
“One area in which India can claim success,” he said the other day, “is education”. And added: “We can’t say the same in health, we can’t say the same in nutrition, we certainly can’t say the same thing in sanitation because we do remain the dirtiest and filthiest country.”
If you are a frequent pedestrian, not the morning walker but one who must walk from home to shop, home to gas depot, home to post office, home to auto stand, you will know how right the minister is. You venture forward to give non-stop battle to visual, olfactory and locomotive adversities such as a tempo laden with gas-cylinders hurtling from behind you, stopping right next to you because an Innova has confronted it straight ahead. You will lurch to a side, only to be pasted on to a garbage bin, that bruised, battered and bursting geyser of yesterday’s joys, today’s junk.
If the tempo and Innova decide to yield some ground and you are allowed to proceed further, every conceivable article of use in our kitchens, toilets, bedrooms and hearths, will swing into view, from the most intimately personal that needs no describing, to milk saches and plastic carry-bags which, law or no law, circulate remorselessly. And you will, of course, side-step, hop, skip and jump over human and animal waste.
Cooked food, obviously in total excess of need, a favourite reject of ours, will be seen obsessing dogs, mangy but determined, as they devour them with philosophic detachment, crows cawing above the canines’ quivering tails, trying to lucky-dip. And you will come to what can only be called the Bermuda Triangle. Garbage bins disappear routinely on that ‘triangle’ with the result that the most representative garbage in the world spreads over on terra firma at least 10-feet wide and equally long, stinking, putrefying, breeding foul disease.
Perhaps only a return of the bubonic plague will change this. Few remember that Surat was seized by that very scourge in the 1990s, taking a bold and innovative district collector, S Ramachandra Rao, to rid that city of its filth and the menace and save thousands of lives, as well as India’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
We’ve been witness to an unanticipated and hugely catalysing national movement against metaphorical filth, corruption. But is anyone likely to start a complementary movement against physical filth? No, because there is no political mileage to be gained from it, because there is no money to be made from it, because for such a movement to work, the plastic lobby will have to be disciplined, unions spoken frankly to, civic authorities cajoled, effluent-releasing industries and mines reined-in, transport behemoths made to see reason, advertising corporates told where to get off and, above all, because the most admonitory finger will have to point at us, at We The People.
As one who was born in Motihari, Bihar, and later served in the Imperial Police in Burma, George Orwell knew his India well. And so he could have done an Animal Farm out of the state of India’s public streets with their herds of swine, stray dogs in packs and singles, cattle and mules with stunning human resemblances and vice versa.
Every conceivable transaction could figure in such an Orwellian satire, from our kitchens in terms of adulterated foods, our sick-rooms in terms of spurious drugs and even contaminated blood, to illegally re-used medical appliances, to law-breakings on the thoroughfares, both in terms of traffic violations and of kerb-side bribes to veil those, to the criminality of our mining Mafiosi. He could have shown how the brave nun Valsa John, who led a movement against a mining company’s activities in Jharkhand, can be beaten and axed to death. Orwell would have shown, perhaps with the help of a shocking visual by Salvador Dali, how our mounds of filth are poison trees, with roots that go deep and spread wide, unseen, contaminating what they do not destroy. He would have also shown how every single one of the transactions of filth can be traced to some corrupt and corrupting giants that gobble up whistleblowers, leaving tail-enders in the corruption chain devouring the waste, like our mangy canines with collaborating crows competing for tid-bits.
‘Dirty and filthy’ are not just adjectives, they are castigations. They are castigations of our slothful minds and sluggish behaviour, of our acceptance of status-quo and of our complicities in wrong-doing.
Our dirt and filth are symptomatic of a diseased work-ethic, dying obligations and dead routine. They are also symbolic, paradoxically, of robust corruption, a lively indifference to human needs and senile juvenility in innovative ideas.
The ‘authorities’ have to be addressed patiently, unremittingly. This can be frustrating. In his classic She Stoops To Conquer, Oliver Goldsmith has Hardcastle say : “There was a time, indeed, when I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but, finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.” We The People are copyright holders in the generation of physical dirt and sleeping partners in the generation of metaphorical filth (read ‘corrupt practices’). Getting us to mend ourselves is even harder. The mentality that fouls our public streets is the very twin of that which fouls our public life, for both proceed on the assumption of ‘sab chalta hai’, ‘this is India only’ and, generally, on the hypothesis of supreme unaccountability.
If few thought a nationwide surge against corruption possible, fewer will think a surge against insanitation possible.
Will Ramesh’s latest ‘off the cuff’ unroll new initiatives in a way that addresses both filths — the physical and the metaphorical — together?
It must, for the two are as inextricable as the garbage heap is from our uncaring wastefulness, the heap of coal-dust from the unfeeling mine-shaft.
( Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor )
The views expressed by the author are personal