Can India be cleaned up?

Celebrity power... actor Amitabh Bachchan participating in the Clean India Campaign in Juhu, Mumbai.

Can urban India be cleaned up in five years? The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) or Clean India Mission was kicked off with much fanfare in October, but will the sight of India's prime minister sweeping the streets make all the difference that is needed?

"Who better than the PM leading it from the front?" asks senior IT management professional and new citizen Lalit Malik, who has been living in Singapore since 1998.

Not only has Mr Modi led the campaign, he's pulled in big names and celebrities to participate. He even got Facebook to contribute a free app for it.

A job well begun is half done, as they say, and "emotions, symbols and national heroes appeal to Indians when common sense, courtesy and a civic sense don't," says Indian PR Abha Kaul, who has lived here for 14 years, of the celebrity cleanliness ambassadors the PM chose. Adds English for Speakers of Other Languages lecturer Anu Chadha: "The 'tree' model can succeed if each person genuinely does his or her bit cleaning, and gets their handpicked nine persons to do the same." She feels the campaign is very well positioned.

Will a pyramid of cleanliness ambassadors, with Anil Ambani, Baba Ramdev, Kamal Hassan, Mridula Sinha, Priyanka Chopra, Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Shashi Tharoor and the team of TV series Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah at the top, make it too top heavy and not filter down to the masses?

"Mr Modi has taken the bull by the horns. Swachh Bharat is set to create a ripple effect and if it succeeds it will make us proud as a nation. It is high time India cleaned up its act," feels Ms Seema Chatterjee, an author of children's books.

Systematic implementation important

But the "method of implementation has to be systematic, and not based merely on celebrities carrying the broom," says the co-founder of NGO Flowering Tree Sumita Ambasta. "There has to be more structural work done. It's not just about a broom, but a water and sanitation plan for the country, as the two are linked."

The Clean India initiative is being executed as a joint mission under the aegis of India's ministry of urban development and the ministry of water and sanitation. It estimates the cost of implementation of the campaign at Rs62,009 crores. Ms Mandira Rana, a PR, feels "it does have a high chance of succeeding as long as checks and balances are in place - enforcement and accountability".

Adjunct faculty at Singapore Management University Bharoti Pande agrees: "This should just be the beginning of a drive for total cleanliness. Singapore's external cleanliness is a reflection of its 'internal' cleanliness too. The campaign should also stress that external cleanliness is symbolic of internal 'cleanliness' - honesty, ethical behaviour, meritocracy, etc."

But there is no question of the burning need to physically clean up India's rivers, roads and public sanitation and to bring India to resemble the India Shining the BJP had once promised.

In the old days, Delhi used to be the city of wide roads, gracious avenues and lazy colonies where, during summer afternoons, water was sprinkled to make the dust settle. In winter, lawns competed with each other in a kaleidoscope of colourful flowers.

Combined with an overwhelming burst of population growth, increasing urbanisation and lack of infrastructure and urban planning, Delhi, like most cities in India, is bursting at its seams with people and the garbage they create.

"The need for the campaign is urgent and immediate. Of that, there is no doubt. The bigger issue is that of open defecation and lack of sewage and rubbish collection systems in most parts of the urban areas," feels Ms Srividya Maliwal, a media and technology business professional who has been in Singapore for 18 years.

At present, the inhabitants of Delhi generate about 7,000 tonnes a day of municipal solid waste, which is projected to rise to 17,000-25,000 tonnes per day by 2021. But the problem does not lie only in the amount of waste alone, there is also the issue of disposal and recycling.

The overall goal of India's National Urban Sanitation Policy is to transform urban India into community-driven, totally sanitised, healthy and liveable cities and towns. In its mission statement, one of its objectives cites 100 per cent collection and scientific disposal/recycle of municipal solid waste as a key goal for the 4,041 statutory towns and cities it has identified.

There are long-term plans to be made with both the public and private sectors, but much of the focus of the campaign currently lies on changing existing behaviour, beginning with an awareness drive with a list of 20 key areas to be addressed.

Exercises are being conducted at the grassroots level almost on a daily basis, from World Toilet Day in Telangana to Bal Swachata Mission in Sikkim, to handwashing campaigns for schoolchildren all over India.

"To take pride in what is proudly ours, everyone needs to play a part. And I mean everyone. That mound of rubbish on the street does not grow automatically," says journalist and author of The Red Helmet Deepika Shetty.

Changing behaviour at the individual, social, community level seems to be the first task at hand and rightly so.

"We people are inherently concerned about our own space, not the shared space. Even in Singapore, the Government cleaned up public spaces and created rules and systems for cleanliness in the 1970s and then created programmes in schools to teach children to respect space and take responsibility for their own litter. Only then did the awareness come to each individual," recalls Ms Vidhya Nair, a third-generation Indian Singaporean.

Living with putrid smells and rotting garbage has also taken a toll on the health of the citizens. "I wonder if someone has calculated the cost of a dirty city. The health costs, that is," wonders Ms Sanaya Khaneja, an intern at a bank.

Research assistant at the Institute of South Asian Studies Rahul Advani highlights the "extreme need for the campaign, considering the vast health implications of India's current problems regarding sanitation. This is especially so in the case of children - open defecation can stunt the physical development of children in their later life as well as cause their death through diarrhoea."

Not an overnight thing

What are the chances of the campaign succeeding and will all of India be clean? Ms Nalini Thite, a PR, is not sure. "We don't know. It took us so long to create the filth. Cleaning is not an overnight thing," she says.

A long-term resident of Singapore Gowri Aiyar agrees that each person has to participate. "Cleanliness is a critical need of our country. If each citizen can play his part, then it has the potential to become a powerful wave."

Well, the clock is ticking and the ball has been rolled. "Persistence, and making concerned authorities 'accountable' for all action/inaction regarding this campaign are what will make or break it," says Ms Gauri Bhaskaran, a new Singapore citizen.

So how can we help from here in Singapore? Co-founder of BridgeAble Ramya Nageswaran says that she was very keen to see how non-resident Indians could be a part of this campaign. "One thought I had was if we could mobilise support from here through social media and clean up one place a year when we visit."

tabla@sph.com.sg

SUBINA AURORA KHANEJA


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