The largest-ever cleanliness drive in India completed three years on Monday. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan was initiated by the Narendra Modi-led government on October 2, 2014 to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Modi’s plan to clean up the streets and roads of urban and rural India, particularly focusing on the issue of the elimination of open defecation in the country is said to be drawn largely from Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas on sanitation and hygiene which the father of the nation considered to be more important than political independence.
Gandhi’s concern for public and private sanitation was part of his satyagraha campaign since the days he spent in South Africa. For Gandhi, the drive for cleanliness in society was an integral part of the process in bringing about a casteless and free society. “Everyone is his own scavenger,” said Gandhi, reiterating the fact that the need for making cleanliness a personal responsibility was key to removing untouchability. Sanitation was also considered a necessity by Gandhi in order to remove the label attached to Indians being in need for the West’s civilising mission.
Gandhi’s call for sanitation came first during the satyagraha in South Africa. His priority back then was to remove the assertion made by white settlers that Indians lacked hygiene and therefore needed to be kept segregated. In an open letter to the Natal legislative assembly, Gandhi wrote that Indians too can maintain the same standards of sanitation as Europeans provided they received the same kind of attention and opportunity. However, he still lay emphasis on the need for Indians themselves to take up the matter of cleanliness. He discussed the issues of hygiene and cleanliness in all meetings with Indians and often referred to it alongside the matter of untouchability.
In South Africa itself, Gandhi took to scavenging and propagated the advise among Indians to spread dry dust or ashes in buckets after each use and to keep lavatories clean and dry.
Once he returned to India, Gandhi’s focus on sanitation grew stronger. He firmly emphasised on the need for education on hygiene and sanitation among Indians and stated that “the scavenger’s work must be our special function in India.” At a political conference in Gujarat, Gandhi had pointed out to the fact that our houses, streets and roads were unclean and dilapidated and that is what epidemics to flourish in the homes. “If we could banish the plague from India, we shall have increased our fitness for swaraj,” he said. In order to deal with plague in India, Gandhi laid down the need for having clean water and air and the precise method of dealing with open defecation. “Swaraj ought to begin with our streets,” said Gandhi.
The drive for cleanliness in the Gandhian movement grew stronger in the period after the non-cooperation struggle of the early 1920s. By this time, Gandhi’s call for sanitation was firmly embedded in two separate movements- the struggle for independence and the need for removing untouchability. Pointing out at the close connection between cleanliness and swaraj, Gandhi asked Indians to learn from the West the art of municipal sanitation and modify it to suit our own specific needs. Speaking to a group of labourers in Madras he explained that “a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing room.” He maintained that open defecation should only be done in a secluded spot in a hole dug in the ground and commodes should be used in the latrines.
Connecting the issues of cleanliness and untouchability, Gandhi emphasised the fact that it is extremely unjust to look upon those who do scavenging to be of the lowest social status. Stressing upon the need for better living conditions for those who did manual scavenging, Gandhi insisted that each one of us should be our own scavenger. He observed that since scavengers were considered to be of low status, people had been neglecting sanitation as ‘unclean’ work.
“Swaraj can only be had by clean, brave people,” wrote Gandhi in an article titled “Our insanitation”. Connecting the issue of cleanliness, untouchability and national autonomy, Gandhi had laid down the guidelines of what he saw as the ideal free Indian society. On Monday, as we celebrated the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the third anniversary of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, prime minister Narendra Modi drew on Gandhi’s views on sanitation to emphasise the fact that Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a swachh Bharat can only be realised when 125 crore people come together.