Last October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with much fanfare and endless promises. As was expected, the response to his call was overwhelming as even his worst detractors agreed that India really needed to be cleaned.
People from all walks of life, including film stars, politicians, sportspersons and celebrities, welcomed this initiative with much hope. The government spent lakhs of rupees to advertise Modi’s cleanliness campaigns, on full-page newspaper advertisements, and numerous radio and television spots were also booked to spread the message of cleanliness even as many felt that the money being spent on the propaganda could have been used to actually clean India.
Celebrities and politicians posed with brooms in their hands to encourage the common man to pick up the humble jhadoo and do his bit in rising to this call for a Swachh Bharat. But, posing with the broom remained what the cynics predicted it would, a mere photo-op! Now, almost a year down the line, nothing has changed. The roads are as dirty, the drains are still as choked and the rivers are overflowing with filth. So much for the PM’s tall election promises and bravado. When India needed a comprehensive plan to rid it of its garbage, all it got was bluster and sophistry.
The problems are systemic. The civic bodies and politician-controlled corporations are to blame because they don’t do their jobs efficiently. Funds are diverted and corruption at all levels is rampant. There is no concrete policy for garbage disposal.
According to Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi, our cities are drowning in rubbish because India does not have a garbage management system. “We are generating more waste because we are getting to be a more affluent society and we are using more products which have a lot more plastic (and) which have a lot more waste as a result,” she says.
Perhaps the most important reason for the mess is the lack of proper waste collection, waste disposal and waste management systems. When the person in charge of picking up the household waste doesn’t do so, the waste gets accumulated in plastic bags at the street corners, empty plots or in front of the neighbour’s wall.
When it comes to civic sense and discipline, Indians are found wanting. We believe in keeping our houses spic and span, but don’t care if our garbage is thrown in front of our neighbour’s house. We also pretend to be unaware about the harm in the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. We lack national pride and character. We are quick to criticise, but not willing to do anything ourselves. We do nothing to find a remedy to this problem that plagues us. So what can be done?
Experts like Narain feel the current sanitation system, basically run by rag-pickers, is untenable in the long term. India cannot afford expensive waste management, and according to CSE, only 15 per cent of household waste in India is recycled. She says the key was not to build more landfills, but to generate less waste.
Reports indicate that the thousands of unhealthy waste collection enclosures that dot the cities have become a part of our daily lives because door-to-door trash pick-up systems cater to only a fraction of the populace, and a homeless man still defecates in the open as no toilet is available. Where are the promises of the government and its agencies to build more toilets? The government needs to break out of its slumber if it doesn’t want to see India submerged under a pile of garbage in a few years; yet my stress would also be on our own individual civic sense. Till such time that we do not allow our conscience to prick us about dirtying spaces that do not belong to us and until we develop a sense of ownership of public spaces, we will remain in the mess, figuratively and literally. Let us not be dependent on politicians or the government. For the sake of our own national pride, let’s pick up the cudgels (or should I say the brooms?) and get started. A clean India may be just a photo-op for politicians, but for us it can be a way of life if you truly believe in the adage, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Dalmia is chairperson of Grievance Cell, All India Congress Committee