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Adoption of clean infrastructure and clean habits would require changes in beliefs and actions. Photo: PTI
Adoption of clean infrastructure and clean habits would require changes in beliefs and actions. Photo: PTI

Design thinking can help Swachh Bharat

To get more people involved in the mission, we need to reframe the problem and identify ways for each set of stakeholders to contribute

As we look at the second anniversary of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we cannot but acknowledge how far the conversation has progressed on the vision and yet how little the needle has shifted on the outcomes.

The difference is starker in our urban areas. Cities are the windows to the nation, where the most vocal residents reside and the most influential visitors arrive. Naturally, then, the Swachh Bharat Mission efforts in cities are critical in making opinions about the efficacy of the programme itself. Rural toilet construction statistics notwithstanding, what hits us most is visible urban waste and the crumbling waste management infrastructure.

But is it just that?

In a problem as large as national cleanliness, infrastructure definitely matters a lot. But infrastructure is only one part of the challenge.

Adoption is the larger problem. Adoption requires behavioural change—in how we perceive waste, how we approach cleanliness and the steps we take to change our actions.

Instances from around the world can provide ideas. Not just cities in developed nations such as Calgary in Canada or Adelaide in Australia, but also how Kigali in developing Rwanda has transformed and cleaned itself in a relatively short span.

Having worked on insights and messaging for the mission at the national level, it is heartening to note the trickle of effort already underway and suggest an integrated design thinking-based approach to creating a cleaner India. In particular, two specific design thinking frameworks—reframing the problem and looking at solutions from perspectives of multiple stakeholders—can help.

Understanding the problem in the context of our beliefs on cleanliness

Indians have deep-seated beliefs about cleanliness and waste.

Pure and pristine: We believe in ritual baths before prayers or festivals. Water and the colour white symbolize cleanliness and purity.

Ownership: We believe in cleaning ourselves, our homes and our immediate surroundings. Through cleaning, we establish ownership. Not included in this ownership is the collective notion of common goods and common spaces. It possibly derives from our scarcity mindset, developed over centuries when it was important to preserve one’s immediate cohort.

Health: Clean signifies germ-free. At the same time, it is often just a perception—cleaning a table with a dirty rag does not really clean.

Shame: While being clean is good, dirt is considered impure and the act of cleaning has stigma associated with it and is often delegated to someone else—typically based on class, caste and gender codes.

Internal or external: If produce is clean from the outside, we assume it is hygienic or healthy. If the visible part of the room is clean, even if dust is swept under the furniture, it doesn’t bother us. If the syringe that is used for us is new, the overflowing and unsegregated wastebasket at the clinic does not affect us.

These deep-seated beliefs about cleanliness influence how our cities, markets, temples and hospitals look.

Reframing the problem of waste to reverse belief systems

To change beliefs around dirt and cleanliness, we need to change the popular dialogue around these latent belief systems. We will be more willing to do our part if we understand that:

1. Waste has value—that it can be easily sold or converted into energy or fertilizer.

2. Waste needs to be feared—either through punitive measures like fines or through its negative impact on the health and well-being of our families.

3. The act of cleaning itself is not shameful or derogatory.

4. Our small steps towards cleaner behaviours are noticed and appreciated.

Culture-led beliefs are never static. At any given time, there are residual and dominant beliefs, but also some new emergent beliefs—usually shaped by media, movies, the economy, and political and social discourse. Beliefs around cleanliness can be actively shaped when clean actions are shown in media. Celebrities posing with the humble broom gather sniggers and trolls today. But a repeated message that envelops us across platforms and is subtly embedded in content, especially television, can go a long way in shaping perception.

Creating triggers for behaviour change

Adoption of clean infrastructure and clean habits would require changes in beliefs and actions. That is tough. Change requires motivation, and multiple emotions must be invoked to influence behaviour.

Pride: We take pride in our flag and get offended by a word deemed seditious, but are not concerned about the street we live in. What would it take to make a country that is more than its symbols?

Respect: We respect our own property in private. We clean our homes and shops and even leave our shoes outside. Yet the refuse spilling from our gates plagues our neighbours, and the open disposal at our public spaces festers germs. How can respect shift from celebrities and religious symbols to public health and sanitation?

Competition: In a nation of multitudes, our need to stand out is extremely high. How can this competitive streak be harnessed for the urban and rural commons?

Appreciation: Our love for receiving empathy and connect is great, but our ability to express enthusiasm and appreciation is low. How can we use the power of appreciation to transform behaviours?

Shame: Personal and communal honour is a matter of pride, and its violation can lead to deep shame. How can we extend this to the public common space, and leverage the power of social media to ‘shame’ each other into better behaviour?

Fear: Could the fear for the health and well-being of our loved ones be tapped into?

Addressing Swachh Bharat solutions for multiple stakeholders

At the core of design thinking is a powerful tenet. Every problem has multiple stakeholders and hence the solutions must address the real, unmet and latent needs of each of these groups. When the obvious solutions fail—in this case, adoption and behaviour even where infrastructure exists—we need to use innovative solutions and behaviour change triggers. These solutions will combine technology, digital, psychographics and behavioural economics to drive outcomes.

We can define four major stakeholder segments, and interlinked solutions are needed across these segments.


There are several layers of governing bodies—from the central government which creates the policies, to the state government, the urban local bodies and rural development centres.

Also, government is a combination of individuals with their own aspirations and capabilities. How well we integrate solutions to tap the potential and intent of each person will determine the success of the enterprise.

Capacity building: Training workshops and video-based lessons—for officers and staff members—can go a long way. Tracking and monitoring mechanisms, aided by technology, can measure progress.

Inter-departmental cooperation: Only municipal wards are under the ambit of the urban development ministry. Educational and healthcare institutions, monuments, animal and produce markets, roads, train stations and airports are all governed by different ministries. Realizing this, the central mission body is creating a compendium of specific ideas and tools to cascade to different ministries at central, state and city levels. The challenge will lie in last-mile awareness and clarity on leveraging available funds, processes and resources to execute at the local level.

Rewards and incentives: Government officials are individuals vying for rewards and career progress. Setting up outcome-based recognition and rewards frameworks, and linking them with competitions (city cleanliness rankings), celebrations (Swacchta Divas, or cleanliness day), champions of the month, and best departments will ensure engagement and performance.

Changing laws and practices: Creating strong laws around effluents or littering, offering easily understood subsidies for waste recycling or conservation initiatives, strengthening the fines system and linking it with Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled tracking will help better following of rules. Further, linking it with citizen apps and complaints hotlines will improve transparency.

Institutional cleaning staff

Under the governance of the local bodies are the actual functionaries—municipal employees or contract staff—who do the daily hands-on work. Salary levels are low, and the repetitive work requires continuous motivation.

Capacity building: Every staff member needs to understand and internalize the goals, processes and expected outcomes. Training is not enough. Lack of cleaning supplies and tools causes motivation levels to slacken and habits to break. Hence enabling staff with knowledge and tools is crucial. Tracking of work is even more critical. With radio frequency identification and IoT enablement, some municipalities are trying to track implementation. Bins and trucks have embedded devices which track the route taken by trucks, number of bins emptied and so on.

Rewards and incentives: Technology is also not the final answer. Staff can flummox the best tracking devices and find loopholes in processes. Corporates, sports people and the armed forces routinely use the power of shared purpose and future impact to motivate individuals. Giving meaning to work and recognizing it through simple mechanisms like uniforms, badges, employee recognition systems and local competitions will allow staff to take their work seriously.

Appreciation: If citizens recognize the efforts of their local cleaners, even through smiles and words of appreciation, it can trigger the limbic brain that influences emotions and drives subconscious behaviour.

Corporate entities

Companies are already coming together to adopt the cause of cleanliness, encouraging employee participation and spreading the message. But they may need to do even more. While industrial waste, effluents and emissions are not a part of the mandate of Swachh Bharat Mission, a large part of the toxic environment of our cities and towns comes from unsafe industrial practices and low-efficiency products. In an integrated manner, through climate control goals, the state is aiming to reduce pollution and improve sanitation. Businesses will need to design better facilities and better products.

Reducing waste footprint: At the macro level, companies will need to adopt better mechanisms, technologies and processes for waste and water management. If hotels, malls, factories and offices pledged to improve their swacchta footprint through grey water recycling, purchasing recycled products and at-source cleaning, it will reduce the mission’s overall burden. Local non-profits and grassroots businesses are already aligning with urban local bodies in some areas for last-mile segregated garbage collection.

Waste to value businesses: Young entrepreneurs are setting up businesses to collect waste and e-waste, and recycle or up-cycle these products or convert waste to energy. Even in rural areas, a few entrepreneurs are setting up biogas plants. There is commerce and enterprise in waste, and more localized solutions are needed.

Leverage small business owners: Shopkeepers and stall keepers can significantly contribute to the face of our streets and markets, even through a simple act of keeping a small bucket for garbage disposal.


This is the toughest pillar. Habits become beliefs and beliefs can be held strongly—even irrationally so. Citizens who behave differently when expected to, inside luxury hotels or malls or a regimented office environment, behave in the opposite manner when unfettered by the propriety of expectations.

Education: Sporadic school-led cleanliness drives will not change beliefs. But an integrated system of competitions, recognition, street performances, experiential and activity-based initiatives that are conducted in a tiered manner from local to national levels might help in deeper belief changes.

Competition: Just like national cleanliness rankings, cities could compete within themselves at the locality, street and society level. Using social media to spread the word might possibly inspire others to contribute to their own communities. Cleanliness ambassadors, students or older citizens, can spread the message to local businesses and roadside stalls.

Tackling superstition: Media, celebrities and community influencers can play a huge role in debunking myths around cleanliness and the stigma attached to the act of cleaning—whether inside our homes, our places of work or worship or our public spaces.

In the end, as much as creating commercial interests and infrastructure for cleanliness is needed, Swacch Bharat Mission will succeed—or fail—because of people. Disbelievers can harm the effort by not participating and even more by being cynical. If we do not reframe the problem and identify ways for each set of stakeholders to contribute, we will not move ahead in this journey.

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Amrita Chowdhury is president, DY Works.

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