Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

cleaning India

On October 2nd 2014, wondrous scenes unfolded in India’s public spaces. True to the spirit of the Mahatma, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated Gandhi Jayanti by taking to the streets with a broom to launch the Swachh Bharat or Clean India campaign. The media was soon flooded with broom-wielding images of netas, government babus, celebrities of motley hues, and ordinary people like us. Over 31 lakh central government employees from all over the country paused from tying red tape, to pledge to clean up India. Since then, Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest of cyberspace are flooded with memes, jokes and publicity shots of who is doing what to clean up this country. The Clean India campaign is an ongoing one, with multiple suitably impressive goals. Meanwhile, we debate the issue in the social media, sign pledges, and sometimes even flourish a mop for effect. We then continue to relieve ourselves at the nearest roadside wall, and toss our garbage at the neighbours’ doorstep.
So is all this flurry of real and virtual activity leading the way to a cleaner India? Will pouring public money into more toilets be enough to keep our cities and villages clean? How can we counter the surge of environmental pollution from industries? What will happen when people misuse the toilets, and then return to squatting behind bushes or emptying their bladders upon public walls, because the toilets no longer work? Will a carpet ever be found, under which we can brush the mountains of garbage being generated by our cities? Will the dream of a clean India remain just a dream? Can people like us help turn that dream into reality?
Half a century ago, V.S. Naipaul observed in An Area of Darkness how Indians defecate everywhere. They mostly defecate beside the railway tracks. They also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks, he pointed out. We Indians were profoundly hurt. We blushed, we bristled with indignation and we took umbrage. Yet the more things have changed, things and we ourselves, have remained the same.
This isn’t the first time the government has taken initiatives to clean up our country. The Rural Sanitation Program of the eighties was restructured into the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) and relaunched in 1999. To boost the TSC, in 2003 the government launched an award for overall sanitation coverage, maintaining clean public spaces and open defecation -free panchayat villages, blocks and districts.  This award was called Nirmal Gram Puraskar. Then in 2012, the TSC was renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). The campaign was revived in a new avatar as the current Clean India/ Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Even more funds have now been allocated, and constant drum beating in the media, among other things, has made this campaign more attention grabbing than ever before. The government’s and our fervent hope is that all this hoopla will translate into tangible and lasting improvements.  While some other developing nations such as the Philippines also have the problem of open defecation, India’s predicament is in a class apart. India has the world’s largest number of open defecators. Therefore, the cleanliness drive is of special importance to us. According to plans, around 600 million Indians who now relieve themselves in public view because they have no choice, will all have the benefit of private flush toilets within the next five years.

We are sometimes embarrassed by the sight of gentlemen hopping out of their Mercedes to urinate upon conveniently located walls. Don’t we all have relatives and friends who indiscriminately generate plastic waste, or toss garbage wherever they like? We hope the awareness campaigns will also change the mindsets of such educated urban citizens like us. The Intensive drive for awareness also hopes to cover people from all social and economic segments in interior areas of the country. We can do our bit here, by pointing fingers at the wrongdoers among us, and hope to shame them into better behaviour. After all, clean households and a clean environment will help us all stay healthy and keep communicable diseases at bay.
The current Clean India campaign is a multi-pronged ongoing drive, and not a short-lived action and publicity blitz. The Prime Minister is keen on involving the entire country, and hopes that the campaign will inspire youth and encourage everyone to follow his steps. Innovative ways are being explored to encourage cleanliness. Social media is being used as a key platform to spread the message of the cleanliness drive. Our Vibrant festivals are also to become occasions for spreading the good word. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has evolved a new campaign strategy to spread the message of ‘Swachh Bharat and safe drinking water’ at festivals such as the Kumbh Melas, where lakhs of people come together. The renowned Meenakshi Kalyanam festival of Madurai in Tamil Nadu and the Amarnath Yatra in Jammu and Kashmir will soon be occasions to spread awareness among pilgrims coming from far and wide.  Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra of Puri, Odisha, Maharashtra’s Pandharpur Palkhi Yatra, and Bihar’s Sonepur Livestock Fair are among the festivals recommended by the Ministry as platforms for launching the campaign.

 By 2019, the authorities and we, hope that Indians everywhere and from all walks of life will know and actively participate in the cleanliness drive. The drive envisages:
  •  Construction of sanitary toilets for households below the poverty line, offering government subsidy where applicable.
  • Upgrading existing dry pit latrines without a water seal, into low-cost sanitary latrines.
  • Constructing village sanitary complexes for women, with facilities for hand pumping, bathing, and washing. This can be done where there isn’t enough land or space within houses, and where village panchayats consent to maintain the facilities.
  • Total sanitation of villages through the construction of drains, soakage pits, solid and liquid waste disposal.
Let’s hope that key people in the government and in the private sector help the Prime Minister make this campaign a success. May this campaign fire the public imagination and involve the entire country. Only with widespread participation and commitment will the dream of a cleaner India be realised.
The path charted out by the Swachh Bharat campaign doesn’t quite perfectly address all aspects of cleanliness. The programme leaves some gaps in the complete sanitation chain, which goes beyond building better and cleaner toilets. What will happen, for example, when the toilet pits fill up? That’s happening in some states like Kerala with high sanitation coverage. Existing treatment facilities are inadequate to deal with overflowing pits. This creates a different health hazard.
The programme stresses upon providing toilets and offering subsidies. But many toilets are later misused and stop working. Sometimes the money is siphoned off by unscrupulous officials and the toilets exist only on paper. Despite all official efforts and in spite of increasing prosperity, access to education and information, too many of our fellow citizens simply don’t care. They will not properly use and maintain what they have, let alone make efforts to improve things.

Despite these inherent stumbling blocks, palpable positive change has happened in pockets in our own country. Best and lasting improvement has been seen where various agencies and the people themselves, have actively coordinated their efforts at all levels to achieve a common goal. In the 1990s, the Nandigram II block in West Bengal became the first block in India to take pride in providing a sanitary toilet for every rural household. To make this success story happen, officials at the district and block levels worked together as a team along with the Ramakrishna Mission. Competent technical support was secured, and funds were released according to needs, and in time. The state sanitation cell monitored the overall process. Similar successful projects later happened in some areas of other states. They were all marked by active involvement and leadership from within the community itself. With the help of strong political and governmental support, the local people themselves helped to usher in positive change.
Success can happen. Ordinary people like us can help make good things happen. It’s time we stopped passing the buck and criticizing the ‘system’.  We are ourselves a part of that very ‘system’ we never tire of blaming. Here are a few ways we can do our bit to clean up our environment:
People like us can help spread awareness and support government initiatives by our personal actions. As members of local citizens’ groups, residents’ welfare associations, or as volunteers with social service organizations, we can help facilitate positive action at the grassroots level. Best and lasting results are seen when ordinary citizens participate wholeheartedly. Aware citizens groups can point out shortcomings in government policies, and offer suggestions for fine-tuning those policies so that optimum results are achieved in their own communities. Knowledge is power. Spreading that knowledge and using it to help ourselves, increases its benefits exponentially.
The Government authorities are making some efforts to address various issues involved in cleaning India. A committee set up by the National Green Tribunal, for example, has suggested that the use of fresh river water for industrial processes, railway and bus cleaning, fire-fighting etc. should be prohibited and made an offence. This will help maintain the minimum environmental flow of the highly polluted Yamuna River. In a seemingly unconnected move by the Government Railway Police (GRP) in Agra, 129 people were fined for allegedly urinating in public, in just three days in June. Noise and light pollution is another problem in our cities. Increasing amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluents and other waste are finding their way into our rivers. We can help spread awareness about the many ways our environment is being sullied. We can draw attention to the importance and interconnectedness of all measures to counteract environmental pollution, and thus help policy makers and fellow citizens more conscious of the big picture.
The authorities need to clean up their act in implementing pollution control measures upon our industries. Too often, the small fry fall below the radar of the authorities, while big money has a way of getting its own way. Vigilant citizens groups can help by whistle-blowing on such pollution generators within their own communities. Citizens groups can also help pinpoint the sources of corruption, which help polluting industries find loopholes, and siphon off funds meant for public projects or paying sanitation workers.
We need to get over our feudal prejudices, and treat with respect those who clear our garbage and help keep our surroundings clean. We can show some concern for the welfare of the sanitation workers in our own neighbourhoods, by guiding them towards better healthcare or educating their children.
Cynicism is ingrained in many of us. We take it for granted that government measures will fail. We justify our own inaction by averring that others will dirty our surroundings anyway, no matter how hard we try to keep everything clean. The murky side of human nature sometimes surfaces not just in our own country, but elsewhere in the world. Plastic waste ‘islands’ stretch for miles in the Pacific Ocean. Mt Everest’s majesty is being sullied by mounds of waste left behind by mountaineers. Around 30% of the Great Wall of China has disappeared over time, not just due to natural wear and tear, but also because of reckless human activities. Reckless constructions and deforestation are increasing the risk of flash floods and landslides in the Himalayas. It’s up to us to resign ourselves to the elephant of pollution in the room. Or, we can pick up our brooms to help make a difference.
The fact is, that small groups of ordinary citizens with full time jobs and families to care for, have come together to show results. Instead of just talking, they have worked in silence even in our very own namma Bengaluru to clean up spots such as Church Street and Malleswaram’s vegetable and fruit market.  Once they have taken the lead, other folks like us have seen the change and curbed their native muck-tossing instincts.
This brings us to a bigger question of our role on this planet. The rate of extinction of species has been precipitated in recent times by human activities. We have a hand in making our earth less liveable, not just for other creatures, but even for ourselves. We seem hell-bent on transforming our planet into a toxic junk heap someday. If we don’t want to clean up out act and save this world, perhaps we can still hope to discover new worlds to colonize and exploit.  

This essay is published in Sunday Herald