Swachh success needs more than just cleaning up
It is impossible to disagree with either the motivation or the urgency for Swachh Bharat. It must be ranked as a truly bipartisan concern that can speak for every Indian. Our cities are drowning in garbage; lack of basic sanitation is costing us dearly in terms of health; and for any foreign visitor the dirt and filth strewn on streets and roads often clouds all the better memories of their visit to India.
The best part of the Swachh Bharat is the belief that India can indeed be cleaned up. With almost three years into the campaign, however, there is a troubling question that is getting louder: Does the Swachh Bharat campaign suffer from a conception problem? Put differently, has it been wrongly pitched as an “awareness problem” rather than understood as an “urban infrastructure challenge”?
Let me explain this difference more pointedly: Why are most railway stations in big cities a monumental sanitation mess while airports tend to be relatively spick and span? Why is Lutyens Delhi clean as a whistle while the crowded streets of Paharganj or the slum clusters of Shahdara in Delhi remain overwhelmed by rubbish and rife with raw sewage?
Is it that the rich and powerful tend to be cleaner and more aware than say the poor and underprivileged? Are the precincts of Parliament house clean because our lawmakers chose to keep the premises clean? And, if we just effect a behavioural change of the poor, will our railway stations and slums become visibly cleaner?
I think not. The obvious fact is that a substantial amount of resources and expenses are dedicated to keeping certain privileged places clean. More than awareness, therefore, it is about the money and infrastructure that is devoted to cleaning up that really matters.
The Swachh Bharat campaign, sadly enough, has fought shy of some basic statistics. For example, how many sanitation workers per thousand inhabitants are there in major Indian cities? What should be the ideal number? What are their salaries and working conditions? Are those on a par with the needs for a dignified living? What has been the technological upgradation or if these workers are armed with the required cleaning equipment such as gloves and boots? In other words, have the lives of sanitation workers improved and is India effectively moving towards modernising its sanitation infrastructure? The recent instance of sewage workers dying sordid deaths amidst boiling sewage, in fact, tells us otherwise.
On the other hand, garbage, it must be understood, is not simply waste lying to be disposed. Much of it is toxic material that needs to be processed and rendered safe before being diverted into a dump. It is heartening the government has been somewhat proactive in this regard, but it needs to move faster and provide enough money and institutional support to create an effective and sustainable system of solid waste management.
Swachh Bharat, sadly, is becoming too much about celebrity runs and talks, about Amitabh Bachchan lecturing children about washing hands and putting wrappers into designated dustbins, even as we know fully well that the rich and famous always have a staff cleaning up after them. Too much focus has been on convincing people that they are individually to be blamed rather than empowering the citizens with the needed infrastructure and policies to effectively deal with garbage collection, sorting, processing and finally safe disposal.
In fact, such has been the force of this awareness framework that it is indeed the poor who are bearing the brunt of the Swachh campaign. I point here to the barbaric attempts to shame and fine the poorest of the poor in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh over their toilet habits. The government would know by now that building toilets is half the problem solved as the other half requires regular maintenance involving a steady supply of water and cleaning chemicals.
Follow the author on Twitter at @rajeshmahapatra