Garbage Nation

This August, when I was in Delhi, I was driving through the Main Road in Ghaziabad that leads to Indira Puram. Litter piled up on both sides of the road. Plastic bottles, polythene bags, papers, food waste, and, I’m sure, human waste as well, lined up the road. I chanced upon an odd board on the road ‘Please drop your litter in the dustbin. Keep the city clean.’ From that point I saw the sign, I looked out for that ‘dustbin’. It was around 3 kilometres further down before I found one, which was also overflowing.

When Prime Minister Modi launched the Swach Bharat Abhiyaan, that is Clean India Campaign, I remembered my search for that elusive ‘dustbin’. I thought, if I were to set out to clean that litter from the Ghaziabad road, they would have to carry it for three kilometres to dump it.

Bins are a rarity in India, just like public toilets. We Indians don’t like public toilets or bins to be in our streets. Why bother about a separate bin or a toilet when the whole country is one massive garbage container and a commode? It’s not for nothing that, according to one US report, 13 of the 20 dirtiest cities in the world are in India.

In order to keep India clean, we need toilets for every home and every kilometre on the roads, bins every hundred metres, an efficient garbage collection system and a sustainable recycling & disposal process. But that’s just not enough. We, as people, need stop littering the streets, spitting and stop using street corners as toilets. There are bound to be other cultural issues as well. When public toilets are built, they are going to be abused, because we don’t know how to ‘properly’ use them, even the toilets in our house are badly maintained, because we believe that a toilet is ‘supposed’ to be a dirty place. When the film actor Abbas endorses a toilet cleaning product, we ridicule him. (We should actually appreciate him for promoting what’s a noble cause and we should be ridiculing Shah Rukh for promoting fairness cream which is a destructive product, both culturally and dermatologically. Anyway, I digress)

And there’d be casteist issues in the rural public toilets. We won’t allow ‘certain’ caste people to enter those public toilets. Even today, in many parts of North India where the toilets were built, people still defecate in the open because they think that’s the ‘natural way to go’!

All this will have to change. And it will not change overnight. It will not even change by 2022. It will not change with the PM wielding a broom. But it can mark a beginning.  When the prime minister does a photo op with a broom, it gets front page attention. It gets talked about. When Kamal Hasan’s character in Nammavar talked about cleanliness in public places, it didn’t attract much attention. But when Modi ‘tagged’ Kamal and nine others, it was a front page scoop. Today, anything Modi does is becoming front page news, because people are keenly watching him. His speeches in the US are garnering live coverage. His radio speech is being debated about in the circles. When was the last time our country was glued to a prime minister like this?* And Modi is using this media attention to bring our attention to one of the most important issues of the country.

Nevertheless, things are not going to change from tomorrow. But it’s going to make a difference. It’s not just a photo-op. Nearly two lakh crores are being allocated for building toilets in India. Meanwhile, Kamal Hasan, Salman Khan, Sashi Tharoor and Priyanka Chopra are going to spread awareness on the benefit of clean India. This is not going to be a one-day job. Modi never said that. In fact, this is not going to be a five-year job either, but, unfortunately, Modi can’t say that. We Indians never understand twenty or thirty year projects. We are so used to our filmi-style reforms where our hero cleans up the system in one stunt sequence that we have begun to believe that it is really possible. In fact, I quite admire Modi for even daring to say it’s going to take time. And he’s hitting the right chords. However, make no mistake that this Swach Bharat is largely a middle-class concern. Our poor are too busy earning their next bread that they don’t care if their surrounding is filthy. And our rich live in such a tall ivory tower that the stench from the garbage mound doesn’t reach them. It is the middle-class who has to deal with this problem day in and day out that they passionately care. Ever since he took over the reins, Modi has been proving again and again that he’s a PM for the middle class. Well, even though this problem ‘disturbs’ our middle class, it’s the poor who pay the price. It’s their babies who die of diseases, it’s their children who suffer ‘stunted’ growth and it is they who suffer all the diseases that accompany filth. So, by seemingly addressing the ‘concern’ of the middle class the poor are going to benefit out of this.

Mind you, India is not going to become Singapore in five years. Not even in ten years. But, if this campaign is sustained, it will become a lot cleaner than it is today. That in itself would be an achievement and we will have Modi to thank for this.


* The last time something like this happened was when Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins are India’s youngest prime minister.