Wanted: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0!

After about 24 long months, we are finally seeing a relief from Covid! I am hesitating to say that we are seeing the end of Covid yet, looking at the past propensity of the virus to take different shapes and names to haunt us.  In India now, we see normal life returning. Children have gone back to schools putting an end to the tyranny called “Online classes” at least for now. Employees have started working, meaning working from offices except of course those who continue to follow a hybrid model. Shoppers have started thronging the markets and malls. Cinema halls have started seeing crowds. Events of all hue are back. Travel for pleasure and work has re-started. Traffic is back on the roads with a vengeance.  And garbage, filth and littering on the roads are also back!

Flash back to the day when Narendra Modi announced the kicking off of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a Clean India mission during his Independence Day speech in 2014, few months after taking over as the Prime Minister.  He said, “A Clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019!” On the 2nd Oct, 2014 on Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. I vividly remember the excitement it created immediately. There was a buzz around Swachhata in the following days in the whole country.

Everywhere I went, I could see and hear people talking about a Clean India. Politicians led “photo op” sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Celebrities followed suit. Social workers led actual sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Children followed suit.  Dustbins started making their presence felt all of a sudden in public places. Administration started spending money on keeping towns clean. Tourist places started to become cleaner. Railway stations, Bus depots sported a cleaner look.  Making cities, towns and villages “Open Defecation Free” became part of this program. Construction of toilets got a fresh impetus.  Even Bollywood appropriated the fever when a film titled Toilet Ek Prem Katha was made with Askhay Kumar in the lead with toilets for women as the theme. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan had arrived.

India had not become a Singapore but there was a movement in the right direction. But down the line somewhere, the goal post got shifted. Somehow the government made “Open Defecation Free” (ODF) by 2nd October, 2019 as the only goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Parameswaran Iyer, who had resigned from the IAS earlier was re-drafted as Secretary of the Ministry of Sanitation and Drinking Water and was tasked with achieving the ODF goal. He made the unthinkable happen.

As of November 28 that year, some 10.14 crore individual household toilets were constructed under the programme. And as per the concerned minister’s statement in Rajya Sabha, the sanitation coverage in the country, which was 38.7 per cent as on October 2, 2014 had increased to 100 per cent and all the 5,99,963 villages of the country had declared themselves ODF.  Therefore, while this goal of achieving universal sanitation through toilet construction was achieved, which in itself is not a mean achievement at all, the original objective of a “Clean India” got buried somewhere in the garbage dump perhaps. I am not yet clear as to when the goal post got shifted.

With the return of the Modi Sarkar in 2019 in the back of a historic win in the elections where toilet construction also played a part, the original Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seemed to have vanished from the collective memory of the nation. Then of course by March 2020, Covid struck and everything else lost focus and priority.

It is therefore I feel, now that we have a reprieve from Covid and things are getting back to normal in India, it is time to put Swachhata on the National agenda again. I read that in October 2021, Modi launched the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) stressing that these missions were aimed at making India’s cities garbage-free and water-secure. So it looks like the program is in place. However, I don’t recollect (probably it could be due to our pre-occupation with Covid way back in October 2021) the launch of this second phase.

October 2nd, 2019 has come and gone and three more years have gone by. It is time to go back to the original idea of “A Clean India”. In my earlier posts on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I had mentioned that if this program fails, it is not because of Modi. It is because we as public failed the program. I see now that people are back to littering on streets. Paan spitting and “painting the city red” never even paused. I pity the municipality workers who are given the job of cleaning road dividers time and again of the paan stains only to be painted red just in a few days. Men peeing on highways has become a common sight again. Those toilets which were put across highways have somehow vanished! Garbage is overflowing from the bins on to the streets. Public places like municipality parking lots in Mumbai and Pune (which I have seen first-hand) are reeking of squalor like in the past.

There is hope still. When one sees for example, the Ghats in Varanasi or the Railway stations these days, they are squeaking clean. Just that the awareness about Clean India has to be brought back as a National obsession.  India needs Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0.

As I wrote before, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning but eliminating or reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. The onus of that of course lies with us, the public of India not the municipalities, not the State Government, not the Central Government and certainly not Narendra Modi.

Pic Courtesy: Swachh Bharat Mission website