Cleaning up the act

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on January 18, 2016

Raising dust: About keeping Bharat swachh - Photo: Ch Vijaya Bhaskar

If India manages to change the mindset of people on cleanliness, perhaps it can also win its literacy battle

The new year has hardly begun on an auspicious note for investors with the equity markets hitting one low after another. The rupee is on a parallel slide and is kissing ₹68 to a dollar. On the Indo-Pak front, the dark clouds refuse to dissipate. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan, it appeared that relations were finally thawing. But the Pathankot terror attack happened soon after and the foreign secretary-level talks are expectedly on hold.

Clean India

But if you want to look at the glass as half-full, turn your eyes towards the massive Swachh Bharat campaigns that are going on in various pockets of the country. NGOs and corporates have taken up the challenge to build clean toilets, particularly in government schools, with ample running water and adequate soap to ensure that children wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating. This is reason enough to smile.

Forget the developed countries of Europe, or the US, even Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia are much, much cleaner than India. Singapore, of course, has been a shining example of hygiene and cleanliness for decades. It’s no use saying that a tiny city-nation can easily maintain clean roads and toilets, and that it is our 1.2 billion-plus population that makes this an impossible feat for us. The fact is that even the most educated and well-heeled Indians have no sense of cleanliness when it comes to sharing spaces in a responsible manner.

Filthy, stinking Indian toilets, particularly on highways, trains and other public places immediately come to mind, and become a sore point when we find clean, dry loos abroad. Recently, when a smiling and polite attendant at a toilet in Delhi airport handed over a pair of paper towels, I told her gratefully that this toilet was such a relief after the wet, dirty ones at Chennai airport. She turned up her nose and said: “Madam, Chennai ki mahilaye yaha par bhi toilet ganda kartey hain. (Chennai women dirty the toilet here too.) And we have such a big problem drying and cleaning them after their use.” I had to hang my head in shame and slither away.

What does this say about those who use air services? Nothing complimentary. An easy bet to win would be that they keep their toilets at home spanking clean.

New fervour

I remember a corporate honcho with a rural background once telling me how his father had taught him and his siblings: “A toilet and a newspaper should be left in the condition you found them before use.” So when you have the spectacle, one morning, of 1.3 lakh school children in Vadodara cleaning the streets thanks to an impromptu project of an NGO that had to go scampering the previous day to buy stacks of brushes, brooms, collection bags. etc, it is really heart-warming. And this is happening in more than one city.

And then Amitabh Bachchan teamed up with NDTV for an entire day last Sunday to enthuse, motivate and cajole various groups across India to promise millions of man hours to clean up India.

When celebrities endorse such causes, they make an impact. Let’s not forget that when he tweets about this, he is addressing over 19 million followers at one shot. At some point these dots will join and who knows, we will be able to clean up the mess we make, or leave behind when we go to zoos, parks, cinemas, shopping malls, picnic spots. And that is the urban affluent. The rural poor do their bit too, but they should be blamed less than the former, who are more often than not meticulous about keeping their own homes clean! Poverty often pollutes from compulsion more than negligence or choice.

The most heartening aspect of the Clean India campaign is that after its launch, toilets are being built in and for government schools on a war footing, with greater emphasis on separate toilets for girls, and with running water too. These are two reasons why parents take their girls out of school at puberty. What a shame that lakhs of girls lose the chance to get an education, however indifferent, because they do not have clean toilets with water for use when they are menstruating.

If we win this battle for cleanliness — and we cannot afford to lose it — can victory over another important one — illiteracy — be far behind?

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Published on January 18, 2016
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