Cleaning India is a matter of political and not patriotic commitment
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with NDMC workers in New Delhi on 2 October. Photo: PTI
It can’t be such a bad idea, getting everyone to pick up the broom. In a country where cleaning and manual labour are widely associated with the lower classes/castes, the sight of the country’s prime minister, top bureaucrats, and Sachin Tendulkar wielding the broom carries a powerful symbolism.
Such symbolism certainly has a place in the long and smelly path to a cleaner India—if for no other reason than that the average educated middle class urbanite has no qualms about littering public spaces while striving to keep his private domain spotlessly clean. The sight of the masters doing the servants’ work may go some way toward diluting the stigma attached to sanitation work, and maybe send a positive message about the dignity of labour.
But mere symbolism, in a country whose cities and towns generate more than 1.3 lakh tonnes of solid waste and 38 billion litres of sewage per day , cannot save us from the prospect of drowning in our own garbage. It needs a clear policy blueprint, political commitment and a strategic vision. Unfortunately, none of these have been on evidence in the various government pronouncements and policy decisions preceding and post the kick-off of the Swachh Bharat Mission on 2 October.
As of now, the Narendra Modi government’s strategy to take us from Unclean India to Clean India seems to rest on two simple ideas: build lots and lots of toilets, and get everyone to sweep public spaces and upload before-after pictures on social media.
This may achieve two things: give a boost to the construction and sanitaryware industries; and generate a lot of feel-good among the chattering classes, not to mention optimal to heavy mobile data traffic. But it will not achieve a clean India.
The stated intention behind the twin focus on toilet-construction and broom-wielding is laudable: eliminate open defecation and make cleanliness a part of national character, pride and culture.
But recent history reveals, for those willing to look, that frenetic toilet-building in rural areas, under the Total Sanitation Campaign, among others, has failed to curb the powerful attraction that Indian bottoms have traditionally felt for open fields, railway tracks and highways. People have continued to defecate in the open even after latrines had been constructed for them —for reasons ranging from poor quality of toilet construction, defecating pleasure, to quasi-religious prejudice against “in-house” toilets, which are seen as entities that defile one’s dwelling place.
As it happens, over 97 million toilets have been built since 2001, using public funds. While this has, no doubt, done wonders for the financial well-being of local contractors, one can’t say it has made an early morning walk in the countryside more scenic than before.
But the Modi government is yet to explain how the 100 million toilets it wants to build—accounting for a major share of the `62,000 crore that is expected to be spent under the Swachh Bharat Mission—will succeed where the existing millions of government-funded toilets have failed.
As for the other idea of getting everyone and her Facebook friend to sweep, well, moving dirt from point A to point B—which is all that anyone can accomplish with a broom—it does not solve the problem of waste. It might be a good way to get rubbish out of your sight, but it does not eliminate the rubbish. Typically, it gets transported from point B to point C, where it is either dumped indefinitely, or burned periodically, both of which, in turn, create more problems.
Burning introduces toxins into the air, which is why, for instance, burning of solid waste/leaves is banned under the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, (MSW) 2000, the document which lays down guidelines for waste management in this country. But the ban on burning solid waste is rarely enforced by any municipality.
As for dumping, it is little more than a wishing away of the problem. Given that land is finite, and waste production infinite, landfills—which happen to be the mainstay of our waste management strategy at present—are a finite solution to an infinite problem. It is bound to break down, or reach a point where human habitation will need to either retreat in the face of, or co-exist with, advancing armies of filth and toxins.
Besides, the location of such landfills produces its own politics of oppression. Since nobody wants the stench of garbage taking permanent residence in their homes, it is generally the poor and the marginalized who end up living or being forcibly relocated near such dumping grounds. If India continues to grow at the current rate, we may have no choice but to export our waste to countries that are poorer than ours, as the developed nations are doing —that is, if we aren’t doing this already.
The point of all this being that in a country like India, waste management is a highly complicated issue that needs a great deal of thought, consultations, people participation, investment, and planning. That is why the ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission’s simplistic focus on toilets and volunteerism seems such a waste.
A proper elaboration of what a genuine commitment to Swachh Bharat might entail is beyond the scope of this column. All I can do here is to quickly summarize what I believe are five essential elements that any so-called Clean India mission needs to incorporate in order to be credible.
First, it needs to adopt a segmented approach—with different strategies for rural and urban India. For instance, if you take behaviour change communication, for a rural audience, the focus should be more on tackling open defecation, and it must be carried out by trained communicators travelling from village to village instead of a mass media or social media blitz. For urban and middle class audiences, behaviour or mindset change communications could focus on making composting—as opposed to sweeping—a mass movement.
Second, segregation at the point of waste production, into wet (bio-degradable) and dry (recyclable) waste has to be made compulsory for all households, offices and institutions, and institutional mechanisms put in place to enforce this.
Third, the treatment of wet waste needs to be decentralized—as against relying, as we do now, on a centralized model of landfills and waste treatment plants —and composting/biomethanation made mandatory for all resident welfare associations, hotels, offices, institutions, markets, etc. The compost thus generated could be used as manure, for organic farming, and to reclaim farmland from the desertification that has already claimed a quarter of India’s land.
Fourth, state and municipal bodies should have adequate manpower to monitor compliance with MSW rules, and incentives to enforce them so that institutions are penalized for dumping of waste. This cannot be done by NGOs or by volunteers—the state has to step in.
Finally, a secure system managed by trained professionals for handling and disposal of hazardous waste such as electronic waste and bio-medical waste.
These five are just the barest essentials. We haven’t yet talked about building a sewage network for entire urban and rural India, without which toilets are of no use, and which will cost more money and water than what corporate CSR budgets and private donations can supply. Or about managing the other kinds of waste produced by politically powerful groups, such as construction debris, of which India has dumped 287 million tonnes into our rivers over a span ofeight years. Or about the waste generated by manufacturing activity, where no amount of broom-wielding by enthusiastic volunteers or coerced bureaucrats can make a difference. Or about how the Modi government has been busy diluting pollution safeguards in complete contradiction to the stated objectives of its Clean India Mission.
Cleaning India is a matter of political and not patriotic commitment. That is not easy. But building toilets is. And so are photo-ops with brooms.
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