Public hygiene and politics

Public hygiene and politics

Most children who die in India before they get to their fifth birthday die of preventable diseases like diarrhoea and malaria.

At last we have a Prime Minister who has noticed that India’s horrific public hygiene is a political problem. Those of you who sneered when you woke on Dussehra morning to find pictures of the Prime Minister with a broom in his hands on the front pages of your newspapers need to wipe that sneer off your faces. And, think again. You may discover that the message Narendra Modi was trying to send was that cleanliness was not something someone else should be doing — someone else of low caste and position. It is India’s misfortune that this belief is so strong that, to this day, there is hardly a high-caste home that does not practise casteism in the kitchen. In the grandest homes in Delhi and Mumbai, the ‘sweeper’ has a separate cup from which he drinks his tea and this is considered normal.

In the cities, it is harder to enforce caste apartheid, but in rural India it is easy. So to this day it is hard to find villages in which those of high caste live with those they consider beneath them. Gandhiji tried passionately to stop this evil and failed, as have a long line of other social reformers. So it is because of caste rules that India is one of the filthiest countries in the world. Squalor has nothing to do with poverty and everything to do with the malign idea that it is somebody else’s job to clean your filth. From time to time, we in the media carry heartbreaking, sick-making stories on manual scavengers. This newspaper did last week. But these stories are much too rare.

Besides, if you live in India you learn to ignore many things. Us intrepid hacks visit government offices regularly, but never report that the corridors of power reek of dirty toilets.

So well done Mr Prime Minister. Well done for taking it upon yourself to lead the fight against filth. In this week that we celebrate the victory of good over evil, we should remember how evil it is to think that someone whose job it is to clean up our filth should be considered lower than us upper-caste grandees. But the question to ask is — will Modi succeed where the Mahatma himself failed? And the answer could be yes, because his approach is different and the times have changed. Technology has made it possible to eliminate the need for anyone to do jobs that nobody should need to do. He is right when he says that if India can make the journey to Mars, then there is no reason why mass sanitation and public hygiene should be impossible.


The problem is a mindset created by a social system that is as old as India herself. So the solutions will have to come from technology. Urban waste management needs to be handled by trained professionals who have the technology to do it.

Allow me to give an example from our old enemy across the border. Last year, during Pakistan’s general election, while cruising around Lahore on polling day, I noticed that the older parts of the city were cleaner than ever before. Later that day I met Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, and when I mentioned this to him, he admitted proudly that he had handed the job to a Turkish company and they had done it well.

In India, one reason why professionals have not been given the job is because of the fear that Dalits will lose their jobs. This does not have to happen because members of this shamefully degraded community can be involved in the process. They can be given the technology and the capital to set up professional cleaning services. If all this is so simple, why has it never happened before? Perhaps because India’s squalor has never been treated as a political problem or one responsible for more than 90 per cent of our healthcare problems.

Most children who die in India before they get to their fifth birthday die of preventable diseases like diarrhoea and malaria. These are directly related to the horribly unsanitary conditions in which they live. And they are related to general illiteracy about hygiene. So as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, what is needed is a massive public hygiene campaign led by someone like Aamir Khan whose Satyamev Jayate has done so much to tell, with compassion, those stories of India that we journalists like to ignore.

Returning home after a sojourn in cleaner, more hygienic climes is always a disheartening experience for me because of the shock of transitioning so quickly back to the Third World. This time, despite endless, futile delays at Mumbai airport, despite jet lag, I found myself in a less gloomy mood than usual because of the sight of the Prime Minister with a broom in his hand.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh