Swachh Bharat: What India Can Learn From And Teach The World About Cleanliness

Swachh Bharat: What India Can Learn From And Teach The World About CleanlinessThe Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was one of the major thrust areas of Narendra Modi 1.0.
  • Swachh Bharat has had a considerable success but there is a greater need to engage with the public at large.

When the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, India’s record on overall cleanliness, hygiene and civic sense was notoriously abysmal.  The 2011 Census showed that over half the country had no toilet.

A programme like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was urgently needed to raise public awareness, but before that, the basic infrastructure like toilets had to be made available. The Prime Minster saw the issue of cleanliness deeply woven with the bigger goals of development and progress.

In just over five years, under his leadership, India has made significant strides building over 100 million toilets, and the country is about to achieve Open Defecation Free status — though much more still needs to be done to change people’s behaviour on toilet usage.

The Prime Minister’s monumental efforts have earned him global recognition and praise. Next week, he will be awarded the 2019 Global Goalkeeper Award by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his leadership in the Swachh Bharat Mission, which he had launched on 2 October 2014.

Fixing issues of cleanliness, hygiene and cleanliness cannot be achieved overnight but with the strong leadership and vision of the Prime Minster, a strong beginning has been made.  Such radical steps were even taken in the United States in 1960s, when Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson strongly campaigned to make America clean.

Lady Bird focussed on cleaning up Washington D.C. first, which was then reeling under poverty and racial tensions. She strongly believed that beauty can improve the mental health of society and initiated a beautification drive by adding parks and other amenities.

Her effort to clean-up Washington was a runaway success which was emulated widely across other American cities. Lady Bird then took her mission to tidy up American highways that were notorious for junkyards and billboards.

Despite stiff opposition from the billboard industry, she succeed in transforming the  highways with landscapes.

“Getting on to the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool,” she wrote in her diary on 27 January 1965. “All the threads are interwoven — recreation, pollution, mental health, crime rate, rapid transit, highway beautification, the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else,” she had said.

In a short span, Lady Bird transformed the people’s perspective on cleanliness and successfully mobilised local bodies, councils, corporates and citizens at large to take ownership and do their bit. It was a collective action that led to cleaning up America.

India’s challenges are far more than what America faced even in the 1960s, but the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan revolutionised our conception and approach to the issue.  Indian cities are now up against each other competing for the coveted ‘cleanest cities’ award.

Indore has been leading the nation to show how cites can be kept clean. It has done away with garbage corners that continue to create a mess in cities like Delhi. City councils, therefore, would do well to emulate successful policies of other cities.

To achieve that, it is imperative to devise a robust mechanism to give fresh impetus to the mission of keeping India clean. The Prime Minister has already called for “say no to single-use plastic” but for such a campaign to succeed over the next decade, it might be essential to establish a corporate and civic partnership which could develop and promote national cleanliness ethics.

This is important as no government can be relied upon completely to clean up the environment unless civil society actively participates.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan might want to have an independent body purely focussed on litter prevention, which is still a big menace in India. This can be formulated on the lines of Keep America Beautiful — a body that has been working for over six decades on litter prevention.

Among its many initiatives over the years, it has created the Keep America Beautiful Litter Index and Community Appearance Index, which are step-by-step methods of assessing current litter conditions and other indicators which are used in thousands of communities and by municipalities nationwide.

Today, the body is providing people with the resources to help prevent litter, with the ultimate goal of helping end littering in America.

In India, the urban municipalities and residents’ welfare associations in cities would benefit hugely if such systems are put in place. Such measures can facilitate in creating clean community systems responsible for keeping neighbourhoods clean.

In the last few years, thousands of toilets have been built with the help of corporate social responsibility funds of various companies, but a more holistic campaign is required to change public behaviour.

One of the best ways to promote recycling of waste and discourage people to use single use-plastic would be to introduce a voluntary national effort to increase recycling in the workplace, in government and private offices.

In India, we often target schoolchildren for raising awareness on vital matters of social change, often forgetting that it is the adults who grossly violate civic norms and rules. Children can learn, but it is the adults who must be taught. So, the places of work could well be the starting point for the longer-term success of India’s cleanliness programme.

Speaking in New Delhi, the Union Jal Shakti minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, recounted an event in Stockholm where he was representing India in the World Water Week recently. The minister was approached by the Nigerian delegation to learn about India’s success on sanitation.

The minister presented the delegation a coffee table book on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and signed it by writing, “If India can, so can you.”   Today, the Government of Nigeria has replicated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan by naming it “Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet”.

This, he says, goes on to say much about the popularity and success of one of the world’s largest cleanliness programmes. The minister added that the world was increasingly looking at how India’s will achieve its SDG goals because India’s success can be an inspiration to the whole world.


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