As we approach the first anniversary of the launch of ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’, one of the most ambitious and, if I may add, audacious initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it would be in order to assess how successful it has been, both as a message as well as a mission. Since ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ was launched on Gandhi Jayanti last year, such an assessment is all the more needed because the Mahatma would want it done.
By symbolically sweeping a street on October 2, Modi triggered a mammoth rush of popular participation. Old and young, men and women, students and workers, peons and officers stepped forward to clean the spaces outside their homes, schools, colleges and offices. For the first time swachchata became the subject of popular discourse. Pic/AFP
First, a quick recall. Modi’s fetish for cleanliness is well-known. As Chief Minister of Gujarat he made cleanliness, or swachchata, one of the top priorities of his government. Sabarmati, Gandhi’s river, reduced to an open, festering drain, was revived and a remarkable riverfront created. Urban clusters were made filth-free. And the glimmering yet sombre new secretariat in Gandhinagar became the mascot of shining Gujarat.
In his personal life, too, Modi has practised what he preached to others. His severely austere official residence in Gandhinagar was spotlessly clean. Before that, the one-room outhouse in Lutyens’ Delhi where he lived as a BJP general secretary was a model of spartan cleanliness. The Prime Minister’s official residence at Race Course Road may be lacking in austerity and is far from being spartan, but Modi has made it seem antiseptic along with its sprawling premises.
Soon after taking charge as Prime Minister, Modi instructed the PMO and all ministries to spruce up their offices. Old files and broken furniture gathering dust had to go. Clean and effective governance was not possible from cluttered and dysfunctional workplaces. With great enthusiasm the bureaucracy complied. From that was born the ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’: if Government of India could do it, so could India.
By symbolically sweeping a street on October 2, Modi triggered a mammoth rush of popular participation. Old and young, men and women, students and workers, peons and officers stepped forward to clean the spaces outside their homes, schools, colleges and offices. For the first time swachchata became the subject of popular discourse.
Media expectedly focussed on politicians and their groupies looking for a photo opportunity, but that did not detract from the overwhelming support for ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’. Lazy municipality workers were shamed into doing what they are paid for. People rebuked those seen littering public spaces.
A couple of months after the launch of the national cleanliness mission, my wife and I drove to Chambal on the margins of western Uttar Pradesh. We travelled through three crowded cities and were struck by the absence of garbage. At a place where we stopped for chai, the chaiwallah proudly told us how the Prime Minister’s message had galvanised the masses.
That was then. The enthusiasm has disappeared. The idea of a clean India no longer figures in public discourse. Schools which had aggressively joined the campaign have all but forgotten their promise to make it part of their curriculum. Earlier this week in Mumbai, I saw young men and women, smartly dressed, affluent, casually littering the pavements and streets.
In Delhi, the nation’s capital city, mounds of rotting garbage dot open spaces. In the inner city areas, especially across the river, the stench of filth is overpowering as rubbish festers in the monsoon rain. Clogged drains and choked sewers expel a nauseating variety of human waste.
Truth be told, ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ is dead. We don’t see the film stars, sportspersons, high society dandies, grandiosely appointed ‘ambassadors’ of the mission, doing what they were meant to do: keep the enthusiasm alive, lead from the front. The BJP’s crores of members are nowhere to be seen flagging the waning response. Sadly, Modi too has allowed it to drop off the radar of his government.
That, in a nutshell, is the invariable tragic end to apolitical initiatives of any government. With the news cycle moving on, ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ has died a premature death. India is destined to being the caricature it is portrayed as by visiting foreigners. Worse, Indians are destined to live in a sprawling slum. Simply because leadership in our country is a 24-hour wonder which waxes and wanes along with the 24-hour media cycle.
Cry, Gandhi. Your message is lost, though not for the first time.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta