Needed: Mindset change on cleanliness

Kanchan GuptaGovernments, or, to be more accurate, politicians, love to pat themselves on the back while claiming success rather than let people judge their performance. Delivery in our country is not assessed by the masses, but by their masters.

Arguably, this is a sweeping statement. After all, if the people are convinced that actual delivery does not match the tall claims of those in power, then they have the option of booting them out of office. Elections in a democracy are a great leveller.

School children and social activists cleaning a footpath during a campaign launched under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in New Delhi on October 1. Union Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said they have done better than our own internal targets on sanitation, hygiene and building toilets to curb open defecation. Pic/AFP
School children and social activists cleaning a footpath during a campaign launched under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in New Delhi on October 1. Union Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said they have done better than our own internal targets on sanitation, hygiene and building toilets to curb open defecation. Pic/AFP

But, it is equally true that the outcome of every election is a reflection of how the voters view their rulers. Factors other than delivery dominate voter preference more often than not. Or else, no party would have been in power for two consecutive terms.

It’s only when the masses are fed up and enraged by a ruling party’s non-performance, that they opt for a change. We saw that happen in the summer of 2014, when Narendra Modi sought and was gifted a mandate (make that massive mandate) to steer India back to the path of development and growth through good governance.

It is too early to assess Modi Sarkar’s performance. Given our lethargic system, and the burden of legacy issues, the PM and his team are just about warming up. There have been some smart moves and some not-so-smart ones too. But any assessment at this stage can at best be based on short-term perceptions that may be entirely detached from reality.

Yet, it would be in order to do a quick review of the initiatives that do not require a long gestation period. One such initiative, laudable and non-partisan, welcomed by one and all, is Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission. It was launched exactly a year ago, on Gandhi Jayanti, when Modi, with broom in hand, swept a roadside clean.

That single deed fired the imagination of young and old, men and women, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Volunteers took to the streets, high profile ‘ambassadors’ stepped out of their homes and, for a while, it seemed ‘swachhata’ would be the new mantra, India would not only rise, but also shine. A year later, as I had observed in these columns a while ago, the fizz has gone out of the ‘movement’, and a noble initiative runs the danger of turning into yet another forgotten mission. At least, that’s the perception.

Not so, the government claims and insists. Union Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, to carry the mission forward, has released a report card that gives him and the government an ‘A+’. Media has reported him saying, “We have done better than our own internal targets on sanitation, hygiene and building toilets to curb open defecation.”

The government’s target was to build 1.04 crore individual household toilets and 5.28 lakh community and public toilets. The other ambitious target was 100% door-to-door collection of household waste in 78,003 municipal wards by 2019.

Among the states that have performed well are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana. Unexpectedly, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been low scorers. Not only political leadership, but administrative capacities play a significant role.

While numbers can be impressive (and we need not doubt their authenticity, not unless auditors prove them wrong) we could end up, collectively as a nation, missing the woods for the trees by overemphasising statistical details. Swachh Bharat is more than just numbers, it is a concept that can become a reality only when attitudes change in society and among those in authority.

What is also required is a tectonic shift in basics like waste management and disposal, which are often ignored while focussing on waste collection. This requires both a blueprint and massive infusion of technology. That, in turn, requires investment. Are we the people willing to pay for a clean India?

The quality of municipal services remain abysmal, even in the poshest of places in our crumbling cities. Panchayats are not necessarily obsessed with hygiene and sanitation in our villages, never mind claims to the contrary. Showcasing Chandigarh is fine, but that’s a small island in an ocean of swirling filth.

I have no estimate of non-biodegradable garbage we generate each day. I am open to correction, but I’d bet it is nearly a third or more. Most of it is plastic. Would Government show it means business, and is determined to carry Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to its logical conclusion, by banning plastic? It can be done, provided the will is there.

Meanwhile, let us teach our children to be different, that it’s smart to be clean and keep the neighbourhood clean, that littering is wrong and despoiling the little we have left is unacceptable. I’d even suggest a certain militancy, a zero tolerance, in enforcing cleanliness. It’s our country, our future that is at stake.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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