My Latest Exchange With Modi-ji About Clean India

Published: September 16, 2015 10:16 IST
As conversations go, it wasn't a lengthy one, but fleeting encounters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the kind of functions we meet in, rarely permit lengthy discussion. At the end of his lunch for the visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr Modi asked me, "Swachh Bharat kaisa chal raha hai? (how is the Clean India mission progressing?)" I replied that though it had raised awareness, action on the ground was lacking and he would need to provide much more Central funding. "Karoonga," he responded. "Karoonga (will do)."

I hope he does. Because what I said in those brief words goes to the heart of the problems with Mr Modi's much-vaunted Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

A clean India would benefit all of us, and I had been pleased last year, at some political cost to myself, to support the Prime Minister's initiative when he asked me to be one of its original nine Ambassadors. At the same time, as I also said in accepting his invitation, I am not a fan of tokenism, and I was worried the campaign would descend to symbolic photo opportunities for grandees who would pick up a broom for the cameras on Gandhi Jayanti, and never touch a broom again till the cameras came back the next October 2nd. Clean India is a great campaign idea, the kind of agenda-setting our Prime Minister excels at, but the real challenge, as I said then, will be to sustain it beyond a week of photo ops.

I frankly do not believe this has happened yet. The photo-ops and speeches have continued, and the original nine Swachh Bharat Ambassadors have become over a hundred, with state-level celebrities being added to the national figures chosen by the PM. But India is no cleaner than it was when Mr Modi first announced his scheme.

This is not surprising. As an Opposition MP I have had numerous occasions to point out the gap between the Prime Minister's rhetoric on a number of issues and the reality on the ground. This is a government where ideas are rarely matched by implementation. A central part of the problem, glaringly apparent in the case of Swachh Bharat, is the lack of adequate funding, commensurate with the announced objectives. As with so much else this Government has announced, there is no realistic budget, no credible plan of action, no implementation capacity. Just slogans, photo-ops, breaking news.

When Mr Modi announced his Abhiyan (mission) he talked about setting up a "Swachh Bharat Kosh," which would benefit from vast amounts of resources to scale up solutions to the problem. There is no sign of such a treasure-chest. Instead, the publicity budget for the programme has gone up by a factor of five, while the actual sanitation budget of the government is lower than that of the UPA's Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.

It is not just that the government needs money to actually build the toilets, install the dustbins, and improve the drainage facilities it is supposed to establish. It also needs money to ensure that there is water in the toilets it builds, so the toilets are worth using. Studies suggest that most of the toilets built since Mr Modi announced his scheme are unused or unusable because they have no water to flush or clean them.

That's not all. If you clean up a street, or a park, or a beach (as I did), you need to create viable alternative places for dumping the garbage and waste that people have got used to dumping on the street, park or beach. If you don't create those alternatives, people will dump their garbage once again in the place you've just cleaned up. Those alternative places should incorporate comprehensive waste management systems, from collection to processing, perhaps conversion to biogas or other products. A clean-up, in other words, can't be an end in itself, but a mere first step in a comprehensive effort to improve public sanitation. This simply hasn't happened under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

After fulfilling my cleaning drive last October, I wrote to the Prime Minister about why his government needed to do more to fulfil the objectives of Swachh Bharat. I took the example of the Parvathy Puthenaar Canal in Thiruvananthapuram, a once-beautifully-flowing water body where boats plied, people swam and even drank the water from, till the 1930s or 40s. Now, however, the canal is choked with garbage, sewage and weeds; the idea of stepping into it, let along swimming in it, is unthinkable. I pointed out that the canal could be cleaned, at considerable cost. But if it was not to become a sewage dump again, steps would have to be taken to construct effective sewage systems for the people living on both sides of the canal, so their effluents didn't flow into it; waste disposal systems would have to be created so they didn't have to throw their garbage into the water. Otherwise the crores spent cleaning it would prove a total waste.

But this would require a mammoth effort, which an MP or even a local government would never be able to afford. It would need central funding, the kind of thing that perhaps a Swachh Bharat Kosh - or even a larger NDA sanitation budget - could have financed. It was a classic example of the kind of substance that needed to lie beyond the slogans of Swachh Bharat.

Mr Modi's response? The PM still hasn't even acknowledged my letter, let alone replied to it. The detailed project proposal prepared by the District Collector is presumably gathering dust somewhere in the Prime Minister's Office. Meanwhile, the canal remains choked up and filthy. And the Swachh Bharat photo-ops go on.

I don't mean to imply that money is everything. There's also citizen involvement. When I cleaned up a section of Vizhinjam beach in my constituency, I involved the local community as volunteers, because as the local residents, they were the obvious stakeholders in the exercise, with most at stake in the cleanliness of their immediate environment. Since it was a largely Muslim community, I involved the mosque and the leadership of the local Jama'ath (as well my local Congress party workers). With their blessings, it became something everyone in the area could participate in and could share the benefits of - the opposite of a few leaders sweeping a street and disappearing.

The UPA government appointed and paid "swachhata preraks" under the Nirmal Bharat programme. The NDA has apparently abolished the provision, perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, or maybe on the laudable premise that every citizen of India, not just an appointed few, should make cleanliness his or her personal responsibility. It hasn't happened, though.

There's a lot to be said in praise of the PM putting cleanliness at the top of the national agenda. As I wrote last year, no individual Indian can match the reach of a Prime Ministerial initiative. When a PM picks up a broom, it is news; the country pays attention. By launching his Swachh Bharat campaign on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, the Prime Minister has grabbed the nation's attention. But he simply hasn't done enough with it - and the attention is, inevitably, fading.

My fear is that Swachh Bharat will again be reduced to one of those empty rituals, a label without content, a slogan devoid of substance. If that happens, it will be far worse than if Mr Modi had never devised Swachh Bharat in the first place. Nothing corrodes a nation's spirit more than empty cynicism - but raising hopes without taking the basic steps to fulfilling them produces the most cynicism of all. Swachh Bharat should not be reduced to one more Modi public-relations gimmick, more visible in the headlines than in the streets.

Mr Prime Minister: India deserves better.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)

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