Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan must be more inclusive

Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan must be more inclusive

By: || Updated: 03 Oct 2014 02:37 AM
Like all events that Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertakes, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has made a dramatic beginning by drawing large sections of urban India in its sweep. While one hopes that the Clean India Movement does not end up as another Sarkari programme, I also wish that the effort should not end up as a simplistic fashionable idea of the elite and middle-classes that does not address fundamental and structural issues that is an impediment to the nation being more clean and hygienic.


To begin with, the idea of cleanliness encompasses personal hygiene, social responsibility, respect for sanitation workers and those engaged in urban janitorial activity (safai karamcharis in India) and most importantly, be backed by adequate policy. The Clean India Movement that includes putting clips on Facebook and using other social media sites cannot be a fad of the elite and middle-classes as was the case on Rajpath. It would be interesting to know that what percentage of men who turned up for the Modi sweep pick up their plates after a meal at home and not leave the job for their mothers, wives or sisters. Charity, they say, begins at home!


The ones who live amid squalor with least sanitation facilities are the ones who neither have access to social media nor are empowered to use it for promoting their ‘achievement’ of cleaning parts of the street. If India has to be cleaned adequately, the underbelly of nation has to be cleansed first. To draw a crude parallel, in the absence of such a strategy, the effort will be similar to a person who wears the smartest of clothes and dabs the most expensive of perfumes yet, rarely has a wash or a bath and seldom changes underclothes.


If Modi talks about the problem of defecating in the public, it is also not sufficient to just talk of lack of toilets but also to campaign for prioritising personal hygiene. Unless cleanliness becomes a personal habit, it is very difficult to clear the clutter and litter of public spaces.


Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched with Delhi’s streets being swept with new brooms, obviously specially bought for the occasion. This was a fairly significant step and one hopes it would target the habit of littering on the streets. Several states in India, Gujarat for instance, does not approve of littering and if anyone is found to cast away even a silver foil after having a sandwich, she or he is sure to get a mouthful from people who may have spotted the act.


It is often said that when Indians go out of the country, they neither spit on streets nor throw garbage on the streets but revert to the habit on return. Hopefully this campaign will deter such habitual offenders.


But the problem in urban India is not just about sweeping streets, collecting garbage and cleaning public lavatories. Waste disposal is a bigger problem. In most cities and towns, whatever garbage is collect, is dumped at places far away from the city. Over time these landfills become huge mountains of filth for vultures and other predators to feast on. These landfills have often also got incorporated into cities as they expand. Barring very few which have been converted into green public spaces with facilities for recreation amid aesthetic props, most landfills remain a source of infection. Urban India is yet to see an efficient waste management system and this will not be created by sweeping streets.


Our waterways have to be made pollution free and this has not just to do with untreated sewage pipes flowing into rivers but also with industrial waste disposal also. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan must act as a trigger on issues that are much beyond what was on display at the launch of the programme. It cannot be an initiative of the middle classes alone but every citizen of the nation has to be convinced that they are stakeholders in the campaign. The awareness-building drive must touch even those who make a living by sifting through dirt and grime.


Swachh Bharat Abhiyan must target the caste system which tasks only the Schedule Caste to be professionally engaged in the area of sanitation and waste management. Migration to urban areas enabled many Dalits to shake their caste identity and take up professions they would be disallowed in villages. It has also enabled many Upper Caste to join professions they otherwise would not have been able enter in their villages because of being considered too menial.


Thousands of unskilled workers making a living as gardeners in public gardens and domestic maids or servants who also wash clothes do not wish to disclose their profession in the city when they visit their villages because their caste does not ‘permit’ them to enter those professions. The Indian caste order has profession-specific castes – nail, teli, mali, dhobi and of course the SC professions – khateek, bhangi, chamar etc.


With time, this barrier would be breached but no beginning has yet been made in professions dealing with sanitation. Even India’s National Commission for Safai Karamcharis recognises that workers in this sector mainly are from the Scheduled Castes. So can India aim to become a truly clean country unless we ensure that they are given dignity, regular jobs ending decades of ad hoc practices and social respectability?


Unless employment in this sector is made lucrative, poorer sections from Upper Castes will not consider these jobs and the caste barrier shall remain the last frontier of discrimination. It is not yet late, but Safai Karamcharis and Scheduled Castes must be convinced that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is also going to include them not just in cleaning the mess in which others live but also by enabling them to live as equals in society.

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