Swachh Bharat can be Modi?s game-changer


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat or Clean India Campaign is the first popular differentiator he has fashioned. If implemented efficiently, it has the potential of changing the face of India quite literally. The objectives of the mission are tough but then no head of a government would spearhead a programme of less importance. So far, he had taken steps that would take months (if not years) to change the country, wallowed in sentimentalist drivel, and strove for a grand narrative—investment running in billions of dollars, infrastructure projects, etc. In short, things that sound impressive but are distant. However, Swachh Bharat is, or can be, everywhere, touching every citizen’s life and enhancing every foreign tourist’s experience.

In an unusually magnanimous gesture, Modi acknowledged the efforts of all previous governments to make India clean. The magnanimity was unwarranted, though, for had any previous regime had done anything substantive, the country would not have resembled a gigantic trash-bin, as it does now. “I am not talking politics… this is beyond politics,” the Prime Minister said.

This is also beyond government, as he pointed out that keeping India clean is the responsibility of all the 125 crore Indians and not just of safai karamcharis. That is correct, for if we throw garbage out of our homes and litter generally, it is impossible to keep the surroundings tidy.

Cleanliness requires concerted action at all levels—Central, state, municipal, and panchayat—and in the forms of policy and execution. Therefore, the Prime Minister has appealed “to everyone, particularly political and religious leadership, mayors, sarpanchs and captains of industry to plan and wholeheartedly engage. I request your active support and participation in our collective quest of make a Swach Bharat.”

Three points need to be made in this context. First, symbolism and tokenism—invoking the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, involving celebrities, et al—will not take the campaign very far. Yes, the huge personal interest shown by the Prime Minister can help galvanize the official machinery and sensitize the society regarding the importance of cleanliness, but the magnitude of the problem can scarcely be overemphasized.

For instance, Minister of Rural Development and Drinking Water & Sanitation Nitin Gadkari said on August 25 that 60 per cent people in India defecate in the open. Besides, there are the problems of solid waste management, treatment of industrial and household effluents, etc. The equally ambitious government programme of Ganga cleaning will also have to address these issues in earnest.

Unfortunately, however, there are signs that tokenism is becoming the defining feature of the campaign. The ruling party’s Delhi unit president was involved in a phony cleaning exercise. People have seen more photographs of ministers, celebrities, and bureaucrats with brooms in hands rather than cleaner streets. One hopes that there would be course correction and minimal symbolism.

Second, the goal should be to make cleanliness a continuous and self-propelling process rather than the result of some movement, even if it begins as such. So, Modi and his team should insist on institutional, practical measures, and not on voluntary, patriotic duties like citizens devoting 100 hours a year for the purpose. The need of the hour is making systems work, and that should be the focus of the government.

Finally, it is worth pondering why things have come to such a pass that the Prime Minister had to launch a nationwide mission to attain something which is a prerequisite of civilized existence—cleanliness. Jawaharlal Nehru talked about a tryst with destiny; subsequent heads of state also waxed eloquent about impressive plans like eradicating poverty, taking the country to the 21st century, making India a superpower, and ushering in inclusive growth and development; but none of these and other grandees ever gave a thought to something as elementary as neat surroundings. Didn’t they ever see ordinary people defecate along the railway tracks, the piles of garbage that blight the urban landscape, the choked and overflowing drains, and so on? Our political masters discuss esoteric subjects like climate change and ozone layer depletion, but ignore the dirty environment of the cities they live in. Isn’t it a curious case of hypermetropia or longsightedness?

It is good that Modi has shown attentiveness for the matters that concern the man in the street. If he is able to translate such solicitude into action, it will be a win-win proposition—for the people or voters of India as well as for him.