Prime Ministers are not born with a thousand hands,” Narendra Modi said exultantly, “but now I know that you young people have given me a thousand hands.” Below him, under a vast white tent sat more than 20,000 young men and women who came to Champaran from villages across India to participate in the inaugural of a movement that is being called ‘Satyagraha se Swachhagraha’.
The Prime Minister said they had gathered in Champaran because a hundred years ago it was from here that Gandhiji created the idea of Satyagraha to drive the British out and he hoped that Swachhagraha would succeed one day in driving unsanitary behaviour out of India. During his speech, he acknowledged more than once the role played by the thousands of swachhagrahis in taking his idea of Swachh Bharat and making it a people’s movement. These swachhagrahis are mostly young, mostly volunteers and mostly women who have taken up the cause of bringing sanitation to rural India as if it were a personal crusade.
The Prime Minister also acknowledged the work done by the Secretary in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Param Iyer, who he said had worked tirelessly to bring about the change in rural sanitation and the rural Indian’s idea of sanitation without which Swachh Bharat would have gone the way of similar schemes that lie dead in the dusty files of government offices.
My own reason for being in Champaran was Mr Iyer. I wrote a piece in my column some time ago in which I was critical of the long list of programs that Modi has launched and said something to the effect that none of them had got off the ground. The next day I got a call from the Secretary suggesting that I might be wrong about Swachh Bharat and could we meet and have a chat. We met for breakfast and have since met for breakfast many times. He invariably eats an omelette and I invariably eat a poached egg and he tells me about the progress they have made. At our last breakfast, he told me about the meeting in Champaran and suggested that I come and see for myself what was happening. I said, without meaning to be ironic, that I would come if he could guarantee me a clean toilet in Motihari. Decades of reporting in rural India have killed my ability to use dirty toilets. He said he would make sure that I would have nothing to complain about.
So I arrived the evening before the Prime Minister and after ensuring that there really was a clean toilet in my room in the S S Exotica Hotel, I was given a tour of the “tent city” in which the thousands of sanitation crusaders were being housed. I met young men and women who wore white caps and jackets and told me how proud they were of having been able to persuade people in their villages to change their attitude to sanitation.
They use many ways and wiles to do this. One that has proved effective is taking a hair off the floor, putting it in a glass of water, and asking people to drink it. When they invariably refuse they are told that flies have six legs to pick up filth to deposit in their food. Another effective way has been to point out that the number of children dying from filth every day in India would fill two jumbo jets.
These young men and women have found that changing the mindset of rural Indians is the hard part, building toilets the easy part. So what they are seeking to bring about is a social revolution as well as a sanitation revolution. I saw signs of that social revolution in the eyes of the young women I met in Champaran. They were sleeping in dormitories in the tent city and had traveled alone from their villages and said they were thrilled to be able to do this.
There are more than 400,000 sanitation crusaders already and the plan is to have one in each Indian village. It is because of their efforts that a survey done last year found that 77% of rural homes now have toilets and 93.4% of those who do are actually using them. The toilets are simple. They cost less than Rs 12,000 and require no more than a litre of water that washes into one of two underground pits. When one is filled the next one becomes operational and sewage in these pits gradually turns to compost.
The task ahead is monumental as I discovered on my drive back from Champaran to Patna. Violence had broken out in Muzaffarpur and the highway was blocked by upper caste Hindus having their own Bharat Bandh in response to the Dalit one last week. So I found myself traveling on older roads through villages of unspeakable squalor. I saw little children using the doorstep of their homes as their toilet while elders looked on from the doorway. I saw grown men urinating openly in public. It had rained and puddles of filthy water gathered in which children played. The adults in these villages seemed oblivious to the idea of basic hygiene leave alone sanitation.
The more urban the landscape became the filthier it was and in most towns and cities the story is the same so from an urban viewpoint Swachh Bharat appears to have made no difference. Sanitation officials agree that this is true and admit that there have been failures even in the Prime Minister’s own constituency, Varanasi, but in rural India there is a sanitation crusade underway and this is good news for Modi who has heard little good news about the many other schemes he has promoted.
So it is no wonder that he left Champaran looking happier than he has for a while. As for me, I confess that even for a hardboiled hack, the sight of those thousands of sanitation crusaders brought hope for the future.