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The idea of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan offers a terrific opportunity to launch a social movement. Photo: PIB
The idea of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan offers a terrific opportunity to launch a social movement. Photo: PIB

The idea of Swachh Bharat

Cleanliness, like in our homes, is something that will be perceptible once it becomes a movement

Last week a friend’s child succumbed to dengue. Coincidentally, the teenager’s tragic demise came about on the eve of the first anniversary of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan—the clean India programme launched a year ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nobody is making a case that the tragic circumstances could have been reversed, but the risk of the teenager falling prey to a vector-borne disease could have been mitigated significantly if indeed the state of our country’s environment were not so pathetic.

Littering, open drains, spitting in public, potholes that become receptacles for stagnant water are just a few examples about how we as a society have enhanced the capability of such diseases to spread with such devastating consequences.

The statistics of this neglect are staggering:

Poor sanitation and lack of hygiene are causing one in every 10 deaths in this country; about 1,000 children die every day.

Nearly 600 million Indians, almost twice the size of the US population, indulge in open defecation.

Diarrhoea, a consequence of lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, is the largest killer and accounts for every twentieth death.

Under-nutrition among children aged less than five years is almost 50%.

This is the consequence of collective neglect for the last six decades. And fixing this can’t be the responsibility of only one important stakeholder—the government. Addressing the Safaigiri event hosted by the India Today group last week, the Prime Minister said as much when he pointed out that this had to become a national project. “If viewed as a government project or as one belonging to Modi, then it (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) is destined to fail."

According to the Prime Minister, while personal hygiene is a way of life for most Indians, the same is not true with respect to social hygiene. In other words, while keeping one’s home and surroundings clean is a daily priority, the same is not true when it comes to using community assets—such as streets, public transport and so on. As he argued, somehow this has come to be the responsibility of the government.

The Prime Minister is spot on. You travel to the US, Europe or East Asia and one would be struck by the cleanliness around us. Yes, the concerned civic authorities are doing a good job, but it is as good as what the local people will allow it to be. If everyone in these countries behaved like us (as Arvind Adiga wrote in his compelling work, White Tiger; the occupant of an expensive car did not think twice in tossing garbage on the street), then these countries would be no better.

The point here is not to publicly decry the lack of civic sense among Indians. Instead, it is to say that the idea of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan offers a terrific opportunity to launch a social movement. Think. When was the last time one single issue bound the nation—it was the collective fight for Independence from British rule. Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi marshalled the energies of the common people to generate this unstoppable collective energy around us. No matter what it cost—lives lost, careers ruined, families destroyed—Indians were willing to pay the price. And winning freedom took decades—similarly, one cannot overnight expect to overcome the neglect of several decades.

But the good news is that there exists today an enabling environment to fuel a social movement around cleanliness. The Prime Minister’s backing and the bi-partisan support (West Bengal ruled by Mamata Banerjee embraced the toilet campaign and proudly acclaimed in April: Nadia district is now open defecation free, the first in the country in the last two years) guarantees political backing for the cause. And, of course, the fact that nearly two-thirds of India is less than 35 years of age should help; not only do they not carry historical baggage, they would be far more amenable to positive ideas than the preceding generation, which has lived through an era of cynicism.

In the final analysis it is clear that the first anniversary of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should serve as a launch pad to widen the support base of this movement. And cleanliness, like in our homes, is something that will be perceptible once it becomes a movement. We should take inspiration from what former US President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at

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