In launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, on Gandhi Jayanthi day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to highlight the importance his administration attached to both sanitation and Mahatma Gandhi. Mr. Modi was evidently carrying forward the message in his Independence Day address on the need for more toilets in schools, and for India’s villages and towns to be free of dirt. But the high-profile launch of the mission on October 2 had its own meaning. Mr. Modi wanted to link his campaign to the toilet-cleaning ritual in Gandhi’s ashrams, to emphasise that the seemingly demeaning, menial work was of great import in nation-building. The noise surrounding the launch of the mission was intended to draw in all Indians to the cleanliness drive: everyone was expected to devote two hours a week to cleaning their surroundings. Surely, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been successful as an event in increasing public awareness of the importance of sanitation. The imagery of the Prime Minister taking time off to wield the broom in central Delhi might be of some effect in some areas for some time. But if Mr. Modi was hoping for mass participation in a cleanliness drive that would keep India perpetually clean, public policy must go far beyond symbolism.
If India’s villages and towns are to be dirt-free, what is required is not the involvement of each and every citizen for two hours every week in the clean-up. While that would lend a Gandhian touch of personal involvement, it would surely be a colossal waste of productive hours of skilled personnel. It is one thing to involve political leaders, industrialists and celebrities in sweeping the streets to raise general awareness on sanitation, and quite another to expect every working adult to put in two hours a week in cleaning. True, without the cooperation of citizens, it would be impossible for any government or civic body to ensure clean streets and public places. But this is not the same as requiring everyone in the workforce to engage in actual cleaning. Efforts must be made to de-stigmatise the act of cleaning, and the participation of citizens in large numbers in a mass cleaning exercise, even if as a one-off or annual event, will have a positive effect. The government may not be able to do everything, but voluntarism cannot be a substitute for strengthening civic infrastructure. For ensuring cleanliness and hygiene and improving solid waste management, India’s civic bodies will need to be at the centre of the Clean India Campaign. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will have to be a sustainable programme, and its success ought not to depend on the hours each citizen puts in to sweep streets. A lot can be done to further the ideal of cleanliness without wielding the broom.