The government’s drive towards Swachh Bharat took a new turn when the human resource development (HRD) ministry put out a list of the Cleanest Colleges in September 2017. The colleges were listed in various sub-categories: technical colleges, universities (I wonder how that was done given the fact most universities in India are such large bodies, but still), colleges, government institutions and so on. The criteria were many and included toilets, running water, solid waste disposal, hygiene and greenery. About 3,700 institutions took part, 174 rankings were released after physical scrutiny and the top 50 ranks were occupied by private institutions. The last bit was a big surprise for me, given my government institution bias.

I wonder if the same kind of ranking will be done for schools. And it is here that there is something we can learn from Japan about shaping behaviour.

In Japan, it is a longstanding tradition that students are responsible for cleanliness in school. They sweep the class once the school is over. They clean the toilets and ensure that the school is spick and span. I had read about this but was not sure if this still happened. And when I spoke about this to a friend, who had attended an undergraduate program in the US with a multi-ethnic, multi-national class, he corroborated the story. He told me an interesting tale. It seems that after the first class, the student of Japanese origin who was sitting next to him politely enquired why the students were leaving the class. “Who will clean the class," he asked. My friend did not know the relevance of the question and on probing his neighbour discovered the practice in Japanese schools, of students maintaining the hygiene and cleanliness of the school.

Can we bring this habit to India? Will students be happy to sweep and scrub floors, let alone clean the bathrooms?

The hidebound tradition of class-based professions may come in the way of this movement. But if we can get students to take responsibility for cleanliness, we may be able to change longstanding beliefs about “whose job is it to clean".

The secretary, Union ministry of drinking water and sanitation, Parameswaran Iyer (no relative of mine, I should add), was quoted in a recent newspaper article (29/09/2017) as saying that 550 million people in the country practised open defecation before the Swachh Bharat mission was launched (in 2014) and that this number had dropped to 300 million in just two years.

I would like to submit that the challenge is not just in building the toilets but in also ensuring that they are maintained and used well (in the film Toilet we saw the Katha of the family breaking the brand new toilet that the hero builds, inside the house, for his OD-averse wife).

May be behaviour change with respect to toilets and cleanliness in general has to start in the schools of India.

Here are a set of actions that could be initiated. 

To start with, schools should ensure that they have bathrooms with supply of water, for boys and girls. The dropping out of the girl child from schools has been shown to be correlated to the non-availability of girls’ toilets in schools.

Students of the higher classes should be given the job of becoming school bathroom monitors. Their job is to ensure that the bathrooms are kept clean, pretty much like class monitors are supposed to ensure good behaviour in class. 

The next step should be cleanliness in classrooms. Who will keep the black board clean? Who will sweep the class of paper and other bits that are strewn around? Who will ensure that the tables are clean? The senior students should be given this responsibility. Then come the corridors and common passageways as well as the walls of the schools. Can a different team be made responsible for the upkeep of these?

Next, a different team should be given the responsibility of maintaining the exterior of the school. These students should be in charge of the exterior walls, windows, as well as garbage disposal. Finally, the schools playground and gardens. These too should be kept clean by a team of students.

Each school should therefore look at five to six teams of students drawn from the 8th, 9th and 10th classes to shoulder these responsibilities. And these jobs should be rotated so that everyone gets a role to play in the upkeep of the school.

The danger is that these cleanliness squads may be boycotted by the upper class kids, thanks to parental pressure. This should be discouraged. Just as the mid-day meal scheme encouraged mothers to send kids to schools, the cleanliness drive should be presented as a way of making children responsible citizens who can tomorrow help their mothers keep the home clean.

If we can get students, as budding consumers, to take the responsibility of keeping our schools clean, our homes and our roads can be next and then the whole nation. And may be one day we can be a clean nation like Japan.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is a brand strategist, author and founder of Brand-Building.com, an independent brand advisory. He can be reached at ambimgp@brand-building.com

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