Why Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is struggling

Ninety-one years ago, the distasteful book Mother India was published by an American bigot, Katherine Mayo.

Published: 25th November 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th November 2018 11:41 AM   |  A+A-

In India, keeping our cities and villages clean is the task of other people- those nameless Karmacharis who come for baksheesh during Diwali

Ninety-one years ago, the distasteful book Mother India was published by an American bigot, Katherine Mayo. Mahatma Gandhi dubbed it a drain inspector’s report. Gandhiji said she declared her abominable and patently wrong conclusion with a certain amount of triumph: ‘the drains are India’. The rant of that racist riles us even now, especially when we find that we haven’t improved much. Despite all her bigotry, she told some hard-hitting truths about why India is so filthy. Has anything really changed in one century?

Mahatma Gandhi, despite his criticism of Mayo’s efforts, was one of the pioneers who had worked hard to teach Indians hygiene. It is ironic that a culture that invented the despicable caste system on the notions of purity became notorious for the stench of its cities. Gandhiji used to carry a portable toilet to teach Indians the hygienic value of not using open spaces for defecation. After Independence, government after government invested time, money, manpower and energy to teach its citizens hygiene. Nothing could have been more ambitious than the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. 

The Prime Minister must be lauded for his intention to take this as a priority. Through TV, radio and all possible means of communications, Indians were exhorted to stop dirtying their own country. On paper, it achieved spectacular success. However, just as Mahatma Gandhi failed in making Indians aware of the benefits of hygiene, the present effort is also failing despite some small islands of success. People continue to pee, spit and shit wherever they please. 

The Swachh Bharat ranking, which had ranked Mumbai as the cleanest capital city, is providing only comic relief. The authorities even blatantly declared Mumbai as open defecation-free, knowing that anyone travelling in an early morning local train can repudiate their hollow claim. One needs to just peep out through the train window to see thousands using the track sides as open toilets. 

If those who rank the cities can get away with this, one can imagine the sanctity of various ranking on cleanliness about interior towns and cities. The 51st Standing Parliamentary Committee on Rural Development commented, “Even a village with 100 percent household toilets cannot be declared open defecation-free till all the inhabitants start using them.”

Though there are many issues a democratic government needs to be criticised for, the reason why India is not becoming clean fast enough has nothing to do with government’s intentions, the corruption at lower level bureaucracy or indifferent implementation. Unless we address the elephant in the room, we are never going to succeed in making India clean. And the elephant in the room is the caste system.

The issue is distasteful to be discussed in the higher echelons of society. Any discussion on caste is often swept under the carpet, sometimes with a shrug of shoulders claiming ‘who cares for caste nowadays’. Weird claims such as the British imposed caste system on a pristine Hindu civilisation also abound, along with guilt-filled justifications of varna not being caste and so forth. The remarkable book by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes, argues that open defecation is an increasingly rural Indian problem, especially of the states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. 

India is now a middle-income country. Most Indians can afford a toilet, if they can afford a mobile phone, which has now 98 percent penetration. Yet, Indians fare worse than sub-Saharan Africa or other poorer, even war-torn countries in the percentage of people practicing in open defecation. These rural migrants carry their ritual tenets of caste purity and taboo to the urban slums.

The book states that even after Indian government spending three times more money in making free toilets when compared to the amount spent by an average Bangladeshi or Nigerian government, people are reluctant to use it. Why rural Indians, especially in the BIMARU belt, do not use toilets is the same reason that Kasturba Gandhi had her first tiff with her husband: It is considered demeaning for anyone other than the designated caste to clean the toilets, even if the shit is one’s own. 

The poor in Africa do not defecate in the open and keep their cities much cleaner. The authors argue that unless this changes or a way is found to work around this through mechanical scavenging, any number of toilets given free or otherwise is not going to solve the problem. Also, while the government is crying hoarse exhorting people to be hygienic, its own actions give a different message.

 Take the example of Indian Railways that carries nine billion passengers every year. It has open toilets that pass the feces to the track. After heavy criticism, the Railways has employed contractors, who in turn employ manual scavengers to manually pick up the shit. City drains are still cleaned by manual scavengers despite the rule banning them. Nothing could be more despicable than the lament that ‘since the youngsters of these designated communities are now getting educated, we are not getting enough people to clean our cities’. This, in a country of 140 crore people, where PhD holders and engineers riot to get a government peon’s job.

The cities need to invest heavily in mechanical or automated cleaning devices. The government can provide two toilets per citizen, put garbage bins every 20 metres and spend crores in advertisements, yet unless the scourge of ritual purity and caste goes away, Mother India is bound to remain filthy.


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