By Komal Bhardwaj

Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The launch of the “Clean India Mission/ Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan” by none other than the Prime Minister Narendra Modi foreshadows the recovery of crucial issues that had been demotivating India’s dynamic development. The national level campaign aims to clean up the country in the next five years. The initiative launched on the 2nd of October, 2014, is the biggest ever cleanliness drive with almost 3 million people participating in it, including several government employees, officials, celebrities and students. The unveiling of the campaign was succeeded by a “Swachh Bharat Run” at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and this event was flagged off by President Pranab Mukherjee.

The campaign’s unveiling, conducted on the 2nd of October 2014, also implies a greater significance, as 2nd October marks the birth anniversary of two eminent personalities of the Indian freedom struggle, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Pandit Lal Bahadur Shastri. The event brought to the fore the overdue sanitation movement that India had been longing for, a movement to improve the deplorable sanitation arrangements that still persist in the country. Narendra Modi pressingly emphasized the priority the government places on proper sanitary arrangements in the country when he talked about the need for constructing more toilets in order to avoid dirt and squalor in schools, in the neighborhood and localities in his Independence Day speech.

The Prime Minister, with a broom in his hand, emphasized the fight against filth. Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in his quest towards Indian independence, but failed to eradicate the jaded image of India’s miserable public hygiene. Narendra Modi asserted that if India can make the journey to Mars, then there is no reason why mass sanitation and public hygiene should be impossible. The campaign has an affiliation to the system that was followed in Gandhiji’s ashrams and it was believed that the seemingly menial work like cleaning toilets can contribute to overall nationwide growth. Narendra Modi stated that everyone should at least devote two hours a week for cleaning their surroundings.

But what is actually contributing in making India one of the filthiest countries in the world? You can definitely count on the entrenched problems of “open defecation”, “manual scavenging” and “lack of adequate waste disposal arrangements”.

A joint report prepared by UNICEF and WHO states that 597 million people practice open defecation in India.

Indians had to face massive ignominy when this report flashed, claiming that India had the highest number of people defecating in the open, globally. And about 792 million people in India do not have access to the proper sanitation facilities, says a WHO report. And what added more humiliation was, despite having numerous open defecators, there was no prominent action being taken to encounter this horrendous reality. The report also testified to Bangladesh’s and Vietnam’s discernible efforts in revamping their sanitation arrangement which has helped them to reduce the number of open defecators since 1990.

But why does India face this severe problem of open defecation? And why do the Indians defecate in the open? The people who indulge in the act cannot be fully blamed, for they are amongst the 48% of the whole population who do not have access to proper sanitation. Also, the situation is even more critical for women. Not only do they not have access to public washrooms, but many incidents have shown that women who use the outdoor area to relieve themselves have faced instances of sexual assault and this acts as an added impediment for girls.

According to the UN, countries where open defecation is being practiced suffer from the highest number of child deaths under the age of five along with rising levels of malnutrition and poverty.

The problem of open defecation stands as a rock solid factor in contributing to deteriorating health and immunity, along with the other hazardous habitual entailments such as consumption of alcohol, tobacco intake and smoking. The functional public toilets in the city are badly maintained, and others stay locked. The Delhi state government and Municipal Corporations are responsible for running toilet complexes and urinal blocks. These civic bodies hire private contractors for running these public conveniences, who later on deviate from their purpose because they earn crores a month through advertising revenue by selling allocated advertising space displayed on the complex. Some of the toilets are not functional even because of the legal disputes continuing with the contractors.

The challenge becomes all the more straining when the people who do have access to the sanitation facilities choose to defecate in open. This shows that adding more toilets to the count of the existing ones is not a solution. The campaign makers will have to realize that campaigns have been made in the past as well, but any prominent change hasn’t been observed. They should address the issues that restrict people from healthy lavatory practices.

Many people have raised the issues of lack of accessibility to water and water storage issues when considering public lavatory use. Municipalities should try hard to eradicate open defecation by arranging easily accessible community toilets that will be managed by them so that they are able to avoid the neglect which was rife under the private contractors.

Much to our distress, almost all of us have at some point seen a bare bodied man or a boy unwillingly diving in the dark gutters carved on the corner of roads collecting fecal matter, we call them ’manual scavengers’, and even today they are considered to be “untouchable’. The centuries old practice of manual scavenging is the process of manual cleaning of human excreta from the dry lavatories/latrines, sewers, and gutters. This profession, which is passed down from one generation to the next, has remained ignored by technology and the Innovating India concept.

The caste apartheid that still exists in our country against these safai karamcharis and manual scavengers has forced these workers to face constant negative reactions from all the sections of the society. The unjustifiable dogma of casteism has been ruling India since time immemorial. Mahatma Gandhi struggled to eliminate these backward orthodox factors hindering India’s growth, but casteism still continues to govern multifarious sects of the Indian society. These manual scavengers form the most oppressed and suppressed class fighting to survive in the Indian society, as they are hated and avoided by the other castes and classes persisting in the society. Almost every other day, we see newspapers telling stories of the trials of the people indulged in manual scavenging. But nothing has come as a staunch step to revive the oppressed lives.

The government should equip these workers with upgraded technology, which will definitely reduce casualties on the job. The introduction of technology will fasten the process of cleaning India and will also give these workers a safe way of performing their jobs. Instead of hiring private contractors for maintenance, the municipalities can hire these workers and connect with NGO’s to increase awareness in the village areas and can involve the RWA authorities in urban areas for better functioning of the plan.

Setting aside the problems of open defecation and manual scavenging in India, lack of an adequate waste disposal arrangement also acts as a stumbling block to India’s filth-free image. Almost every city is fighting to survive the mountains of garbage and this is due to the lack of waste management strategies. Allocating a building for waste storage will not solve the whole issue. The solution requires a long run plan to dispose the collected waste. There have already been so many debates about the people and children who work in these fields full of waste, sorting out the city’s dirt. Thousands of children die of hazardous ailments in the dark ditches of filth and grime, and their lives have been ignored and go unnoticed. No reforms have been formulated to restore their dignity or their health.

The solution to the aforementioned issues is a mix of “behavioral change” and “easy accessibility to sanitation”. Formulating the village land plans in a way that it provides the scope for effectively structuring sewer lines and drainage systems can be a potential path towards country-wide sanitation. Education and communication will help playing a crucial role because while the zealous campaign idea has already been unfurled in Delhi, the rural population is hardly aware about the campaign’s purpose and its demands. And the urban population should understand that the symbolic imagery of the ‘broom’ demands a serious effort from their side and they can contribute by reducing the amount of waste they generate. Stating strict laws for the industries and big factories for their waste management will help.

A survey stated that in the villages, a considerable number of people know about the catastrophic effects of alcohol consumption, smoking and tobacco, but only a small percentage of the population know about the detrimental effects of open defecation. This is alarming because open defecation affects child health, and a significant number of child deaths are recorded every year due to the scattered filth created by open defecation, and the ones who survive continue to suffer with severe unfavorable health conditions.

The campaign requires a dedicated participation at an enormous scale. The government should try including a large manpower force, and this way numerous Indians can contribute to the mission, and realize that “India will become what they want it to become”. Every citizen of the country needs to change their mindset and break the shackles of ignorance, and each one of us needs to dedicatedly work for our responsibilities. All this will further reform India’s health equation and valuably contribute to the dream that Namo wants to attain by 2019.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind