Cleaning up

Civil servants on their holiday gingerly handling a jhadu to satisfy the PM will not be enough.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:October 5, 2014 12:00 am
modi-480 If we are to deliver ‘Swachh Bharat’ as the PM would like, it will need more than taking up the broom on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

Indians invented the zero and the decimal system, the most powerful and useful concepts in mathematics. The Chinese invented the wheelbarrow and printing, labour saving and mind-broadening inventions. Indians are philosophical; the Chinese practical. Indians look to the sky and meditate on the Eternal. But their surroundings are filthy. Well-off people do not clean up after themselves. That is the job of the lowest people whose karma, we believe, led them to be born to do menial jobs. No wonder India has a dirt problem.

If we are to deliver ‘Swachh Bharat’ as the PM would like, it will need more than taking up the broom on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. To begin with, the broom — the jhadu — is an extremely inefficient way of removing dust and dirt. If you have ever swept a room, you will know. The jhadu just displaces dust; it does not remove it. The dust rises for a while and then settles right back down. We need more efficient instruments to clean, machines which suck up the dust, which swallow and crunch up the garbage, not the jhadu. The jhadu is a sign that the elite does not know how to clean and does not care.

The problem of urban filth is a national emergency. Civil servants on their holiday gingerly handling a jhadu to satisfy the PM will not be enough. It is a daily struggle in which every citizen has to be engaged. One army which can be recruited in this struggle is another ugly feature of our cities — beggars. Beggars are not necessarily BPL (below poverty line). Begging can pay well. Begging is an industry, the only one in which children are the larger part of the workforce. The trick would be to harness the beggars to become permanently engaged in cleaning up our cities. Give them simple uniforms, tools and cash incentives to do the cleaning up round-the-clock, considering begging is a full-time job anyway.

The one other force which knows more about cleaning than anyone else are women. The job of keeping the home clean is their responsibility. To supervise the cleaning servants is their job. Women know and care about cleaning much more than men. Harness their knowledge and their ideas and see how much progress we can make. There should be street committees with women involved who would see to it that their streets stay clean. Give them incentives to do this job.

It need not stop there. I have visited universities and walked through corridors where there is dirt and filth, broken window panes and peeling paint. As I have walked through, vice-chancellors and professors have accompanied me, all keen to get to the tea they have arranged for me. They do not want to look as I point out the dirt. They shout at their subordinates. The subordinates shout at the peons.

The peons mumble something. I know nothing will change because the big people don’t think it is their job to clean, or even to notice the dirt and the filth. It is a cultural trap.

The new generation has to do better than their elders. In schools and colleges, bursaries should be given to students who would see to it to keep their surroundings clean. This is again a task where the professionals employed, invariably the lowest-paid employees, have no power or inclination to take responsibility. The principal task is to make people ashamed of their tolerance of dirt. A people who value ritual cleanliness above physical cleanliness needs re-educating. Our desire for ritual cleaning has made the Ganga the dirty, polluted river it has become.

Dirt is also gold. Towns and cities can collect their garbage and convert it into energy. This is not rocket science. Making this possible will require asking households to separate their waste, as is done all over the developed world. India generates enough garbage to make recycling and treatment of waste an activity that can generate revenues for town and city governments. Not just October 2; every day should be Gandhi Jayanti.

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