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How clean is my country

Reflections on the swacchata pledge

Kumkum Roy (kumkumroy@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The broomstick wielding Mission Swacch Bharat’s activities will have limited impact on cleanliness on the ground. We need a sustainable action plan in its place, focussed on people who have, for long, ensured the cleanliness of the priveleged.

Many of us working in schools, colleges, universities, offices and other institutions across the country received, by 1October 2014, if not earlier, a directive issued by the government of India, requiring us to participate in a cleanliness drive and take a pledge, which was circulated, at least in Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Hindi. Given thatours is a central university, proud as of now of its diversity and its ability to attract faculty, students and staff from all parts of the country, this exclusive emphasis on a monolingual pledge was somewhat disturbing, to say the least. However, it had its perhaps unintended implications as well. In a language that is sharply gendered, women were excluded, at least formally, from taking a pledge that took a male subject for granted as normative.

Advertisements of the pledge

The pledge had other manifestations as well. Amongst other newspapers the Hindu (2October 2014) carried an advertisement showing a young (presumably middle class) girl, looking shocked, with the caption “Papa!! Ho Ho Shame Shame! You are urinating in public?” The child, and the reader, is instructed: “If you see any person dirtying a public place, click a picture and send it to me…(New Delhi Municipal Council).”  The advertisement from the Delhi Police (also from the same paper) was equally revealing: it showed a car being towed away, and carried the caption “Sirf Parking Mein Gaari, Svacch Dilli Hamari (Cars only in the parking lot; our Delhi is clean).” But this was not all; an English advertisement in the same paper, this time with a dominating, benign image of Gandhiji superimposed on the police headquarters, declared: “Alongwith Policing we are committed to keep Delhi clean & green.”  Additionally, it stated that the initiative of the Delhi police included: “Plantation of trees in police colonies/ police stations; Cleanliness drive in all police offices/ stations/colonies; Strict action against disposal of waste material in unauthorized place,” and included a list of 24x7 anti corruption helplines.

In yet another advertisement, the Delhi government (once again in Hindi, The Statesman, 3 October 2014), asked “Jis Nadi ki puja karte hain, usey gandagi se kyon bharte hain?” (Why do you fill the river you worship with filth?”) Two visuals of a river, presumably the Yamuna, titled “asabhya vyavahar” and “sabhya vyavahar”  (uncivilised and civilised behaviour respectively), accompanied the advertisement. Again, there was a set of directives: “Sabhya banein, samajhdaar banein, zimmedaar naagarik ka farz nibhaayein” (Be civilised, wise; fulfill the duties of a responsible citizen.) More specific instructions followed: Keep your home and your neighbourhood clean; throw garbage in bins; use public toilets; do not spit in public places and on roads; do not burn garbage.

Some of this, with additions and alterations, was echoed along with the appeal of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi (The Hindu, 2 October 2014).  Apart from showing the lawns of India Gate being swept, the advice included—no plastic bags, plant more trees, no cutting trees, no burning dry leaves, “just dig and bury them”, “say no to litter, don’t pollute the river. Use dustbin, adopt re-cycle technique, use auto-tipper for garbage, don’t throw waste on streets, don’t urinate in the open, don’t spit on road, no smoking in public place, don’t deface the monuments, avoid roaming of cattles on the road.” The last named would be somewhat difficult to execute without the consent of the concerned bovines, and we do not, as yet, have directives on how that is to be ensured.

And, of course, a full-page advertisement, issued by the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India (The Hindu, 2 October 2014), carried pictures of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, and the text of the pledge.

Unravelling the pledge

There are three elements of the pledge that are significant. One is the reference to Mother India. We learn that “Mahatma Gandhi secured freedom for Mother India. Now it is our duty to serve Mother India by keeping the country neat and clean.” One wonders what happened to the constitutional “India that is Bharat”. Has it been rendered redundant, and obsolete, wiped clean out of existence in the rhetoric of cleanliness? Given that vast sections of the state machinery, and people from the head of the state onwards, were galvanised into administering and taking the pledge, this is disturbing, to say the least.

The second is the personal nature of the pledge. Those who took the pledge (and there appear to have been several thousands if not more) are committed to working for cleanliness for two hours a week, through the year. And cleanliness has a neat, finite definition: “I will neither litter nor let others litter.” I will return to this finitude in a moment. The other obligation that the pledge-takers adopt is to convert a hundred other people to their cause.

The third is the element that is missing from the pledge, directed as it is at the individual citizen, decontextualised from his or her environment. There is absolutely no mention of environmental pollution—whether of water or air, caused, not so much by the average citizen but by heavy industries, often transnational, and the land degradation that very often accompanies schemes of “development”. Structures and processes that render cleanliness well-nigh impossible are thus obliterated from this vision. In keeping each other under close scrutiny, both in terms of self-examination, and in terms of keeping an eye on our family and neighbours, we are rendered blissfully oblivious of the more insidious, all-pervasive pollutants that render our water, air, soil, unclean, and steadily erode the quality of our lives. All we need to bother about is the used paper cup tossed out carelessly by a neighbour, or the man who urinates on the boundary wall, or the irresponsible woman who parks in the wrong place.

Related to this, is a complete erasure of one of the biggest constraints to cleanliness—the acute shortage of water. Once again, there is no recognition of individual or collective responsibility for these shortages—the ways in which water resources are consumed by large industries, the pollution of rivers that is often an inevitable consequence, and the sheer lack of access to water for drinking and sanitation that millions struggle with in their everyday existence. Taking these issues on board would demand far more than a pledge to use dustbins or stop spitting.

Absence of the working class

As illuminating were some of the reports of activities that were carried out, and the statements that were issued. The Statesman (3 October 2014) drew attention to the plight of slum dwellers, for whom survival in insanitary conditions is a way of life.  It also carried a vivid account of the activities of the Delhi government:

The chief secretary also conducted an inspection of all the offices and toilets at Delhi Secretariat and appealed [to] the staff not to wash utensils in toilets citing that food particles and other foreign objects get caught between the drain and pipes leading to choking of the drain.

Compare this with the account of Yusuf, a ragpicker, also from the same newspaper. His arduous daily routine includes collecting nearly 50 kg of trash a day, and sorting this out with the help of his mother and sister, before selling his collection to the kabariwala. The report also states that there is at least one ragpicker per hundred people in Delhi, working to keep the city clean, and located at the very bottom of the socio-economic order. What meaning could the pledge have for him?

While ragpickers are literally at the very bottom of the heap, in the unorganised sector, The Hindu (2nd October 2014) reported that in the South Delhi Municipal Corporation alone, as many as 25% (7,000 out of 28,000) safai karamcharis work on a temporary basis, denied the benefits of permanent employment, even as they work to keep the city clean.

Within Jawaharlal Nehru University, the campus responded in a variety of ways (The Statesman, 3 October 2014). Many, as expected, responded diligently to the official directive. Others chose to boycott both the pledge-taking and the symbolic cleanliness drive either tacitly or explicitly. More important, faculty, students and workers mobilised to constructively shift the focus of the occasion from a symbolic gesture towards the conditions of those who actually ensure the cleanliness of the upper and middle classes (and castes) who have access to the institutions that were expected to participate in the pledge-taking. Demands for ensuring safe working conditions, including footwear, gloves and masks, the basic prerequisites for handling hazardous substances, were raised, as also long-term concerns about job security.

Conclusion

As the dust settles down after the broomstick wielding that we have been witness to, we clearly have a long way to go as we take on the pledge and move beyond it. 

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