Prime Minister Narendra Modi wields a broom during a surprise visit to the Mandir Marg Police Station after the launch of his “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” in New Delhi, Oct. 2. The nationwide campaign aims to clean up India in five years. (Press Trust of India)

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The first initiative taken up with gusto by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his return from his maiden trip to the United States was the launch of the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” or Clean India Campaign, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

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Modi chose October 2, 2014, the occasion of 145th birth anniversary Mahatma Gandhi to give the clarion call. Counted among the world’s greatest crusaders of equality, Gandhi had an extraordinary penchant for cleanliness in personal habits and advocated the same in society. Hence the day was appropriate to evoke the Mahatma and his favorite adage “Cleanliness is next to Godliness!”

The timeline for achievement of this admirable mission is fixed as October 2, 2019.

A country where urban and rural spaces have abysmally low levels of sanitation and the castes involved in removal of litter regarded as untouchables or ‘dalits,’ the sight of the Prime Minister sweeping the pavements of Valmiki Basti, a colony of sweepers once visited by Gandhi was a symbolic counter to such popular perceptions.

According to directives of the central government, all states and departments joined the Prime Minister’s march and more than 3 million government employees and students of schools and colleges were administered the Clean India pledge.

Activities like walking, running and flying kites were conducted to highlight the significance of the mission.

True to his style, Modi addressed the nation from Rajpath, the ceremonial central avenue, to elaborate on his pet project in the presence of thousands of school children, Union Cabinet Ministers, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, film actor Aamir Khan and boxer Vijender Singh.

After awarding the winners of the logo (Gandhi’s spectacles) and slogan contest (“ek kadam swachhta ki or”), the PM extolled the Mahatma’s message, “Bapu gave us the message ‘Quit India. Clean India,’ but his ‘Clean India’ dream is still unfulfilled … I am not saying that our newly-elected government has done everything for sanitation. I praise all governments before me, union governments and state governments, corporate and voluntary groups.”

He called out to the 1.25 billon citizens to assume responsibility of the outcome of the movement, individually dedicate 10 hours every year and to discipline themselves.

(Above): Ace badminton player P.V. Sindhu takes part in a cleanliness drive as part of “Swach Bharat Abhiyan” at Lingampally Railway Station in Hyderabad, Nov. 1. [Photo: Press Trust of India] In order to propagate the hygiene mission further, he invited nine prominent public personalities (film actors Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Kamal Haasan; Goa Governor Mridula Sinha; Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor; Baba Ramdev, the Yoga Guru; Industrialist Anil Ambani; and the crew of popular comedy serial Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma) to devote themselves to the cause and endorsed each one to invite nine more to start with cleaning of public spaces.

(Above): Ace badminton player P.V. Sindhu takes part in a cleanliness drive as part of “Swach Bharat Abhiyan” at Lingampally Railway Station in Hyderabad, Nov. 1. [Photo: Press Trust of India]
In order to propagate the hygiene mission further, he invited nine prominent public personalities (film actors Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Kamal Haasan; Goa Governor Mridula Sinha; Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor; Baba Ramdev, the Yoga Guru; Industrialist Anil Ambani; and the crew of popular comedy serial Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma) to devote themselves to the cause and endorsed each one to invite nine more to start with cleaning of public spaces.

That the PM gave a personal push to the cause of sanitation has gained a nod of approval from most quarters.

Like everyone else, reigning Bollywood actor, Salman Khan accepted the PM’s challenge and tweeted, “Me & my Foundation accept the invite from our honorable Prime Minister for Swachh Bharat and will give our 100% for #MyCleanIndia.”

Preceding the launch was a week of cleanliness when central government offices were spruced up, old furniture discarded or overhauled and old files sent to record rooms.

Sources at the Urban Development Ministry say that an estimated Rs. 620 billion would be granted in the first phase to cover 4,041 settlements and this would entail a plethora of micro-targets; elimination of open defecation, conversion of insanitary toilets to pour-flush toilets, eradication of manual scavenging, and municipal solid waste management.

Many aims may not be novel to a central program, yet the moot point that the present government intends, are transforming social and hygiene behaviors, improving awareness on sanitation-public health linkages, and enlisting participation of local self-government bodies and private sector.

In contrast to current trends, ancient Indian societies had supported their environments with lifestyles which were established on values like respect for nature, simplicity and harmony, and stressed on inner and outer cleanliness.

Primacy to hygiene and purity by way of taking mandatory baths prior to every ritual is evident in form of holy tanks in every Indian religious precinct.

Yet, with passage of time, there seems to have occurred violations of innate qualities of human soul and the natural order and depletion of natural resources as well as utter pollution of human habitats and thus holy cities and rivers.

Present India ranks poorly even among Asian countries when it comes to standards of sanitation as only a third of the 1.2 billion people have access to sanitation and more than 60 percent of population defecate outside.

Thus has grown the incidence of diseases and mortality due to cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid, and also loss of productivity.

The annual per person loss from poor sanitation as computed by World Bank’s South Asia Water & Sanitation Unit in its study titled “Economic Impact of Inadequate Sanitation in India” in 2010 is $48 on a per capita basis.

It states that lack of toilets and decent sanitation costs India about $54 billion (Rs. 240 billion), or 6.4 percent of its GDP (2006) each year.

Every year more than 200,000 children die from diarrhoea despite the availability of effective and affordable treatments.

Sounding a similar danger is a 2011 report by United Nations Children’s Fund that reveals diarrhoea, caused due to unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, as the biggest killers of infants. In 2010 the disease led to 13 percent of child deaths.

The 2011 Census further reads that just about 32.7 percent of rural households have access to toilets. According to 2014’s UN report, India continues to have the largest number of people in the world defecating in the open.

In this context, the figures furnished by the Central Pollution Board (CPB) are no less disheartening.

According to CPB figures, urban India generates an approximately 47 million tons of solid waste (garbage) every year, of which a third is left to rot away in streets while the 70 percent that is collected is dumped either in landfills or left in the open in spaces outside the main habitation. Only 18 percent of collected garbage is treated to recycle or make fuel as per the data.

While presenting his views on cleanliness drive, Urban Development Minister, Venkaiah Naidu said, “It (cleaning) is a big task. We are appealing to all stake holders to achieve this goal. This will not only improve image of India internationally but also transform the country … Sanitation and cleanliness should be a part of school curriculums so that the young generation is better sensitized to the issue.”

On the occasion Education Minister Smriti Irani released a handbook “Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya” (Clean India Clean School) to encourage cleanliness in schools across the country.

Reportedly Union Ministers and Health Secretary Anil Goswami, have been making surprise checks at various places and sensitising their staff about cleanliness.

Lending support to this campaign are various Industry Associations like the Confederation of Indian Industry that has launched “Mission-Sanitation of Schools (SoS)” and announced construction of 10,000 toilets in the first phase (by the end of 2015-2016). Leading this rush to make toilets, especially for girls, are big firms — Tata Consultancy Services, Bharti Foundation, Hindustan Unilever, Aditya Birla Group, ITC and Adani Group to name a few.

Whether this campaign will pave the way for a sustainable clean and healthy India is uncertain but certainly Modi has won plaudits for attempting to take on cudgels with an endemic problem plaguing the country.

In fact there are strong rumors that Shashi Tharoor, twice elected Congress Parliamentarian, was removed from the position of spokesperson of his party as he praised Modi for this campaign.

On a different note though, Modi has underscored that a legal framework is required to institutionalize the mission, touch villages, reward best-performing villages, set standards of cleanliness for government offices, and impact towns along the river Ganga and its tributaries.

It is a wait and watch if the entire mission actualizes the mentioned goals.