Government tries to clean up India, can it succeed?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: October 2014

When we think of the word ‘India’, there are many images that spring to mind. An ancient culture, architecture, engineers, the list goes on, all quite so romantic and exotic. But the ground reality in the country is far from the pretty picture drawn by ‘Incredible India’ campaigns. The people are not as friendly as advertised, the food is far from healthy, facilities anything but adequate, and above all, there is an unbelievable lack of cleanliness.

This is not a surprise to any of us. There are hardly any public spaces in the country that is not littered, even when there are litter bins, they are overflowing with stinking trash as many cities are at a loss when it comes to sustainable waste disposal systems. And considering that in many parts of the country people still do not have toilets, the public places have become communal restrooms.

But we can all agree on one thing. No Indian will tell you that the situation is ok. We are all unhappy about it, just that we are not able to bring in a significant change to the issue. But this might see a slight change, that is, if things go as planned.

One of the recent initiatives from the Indian government was to urge people to make an effort to clean up the country. The efforts were kick started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself on the day of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, marking it as a note of respect to the father of our nation who had insisted so much on the value of cleanliness. Modi himself took to the streets with a broom in hand, setting example and leading from the front, forcing other ministers, Bollywood stars and eminent personalities to follow suit.

Although the amount of cleaning done by these people would hardly be significant in a country as huge as India, it might have helped to make some heads turn and focus on the issue. However, even with such a large fanfare, the matter has failed to catch up to the lower levels of the society. What would be needed here first then, is not an effort to clean up the place, but to clean up our attitude. Let me explain.

An average Indian is used to throwing trash around in public. On trains, we throw out the remains of what we eat through the window. If you are in the air conditioned compartment, you stuff it into the pouch, not making an effort to stuff it somewhere appropriate. Why is there such a practice? First of all, there is no trashcan in most of our public places, even if we want to dispose waste appropriately. The trashcans that are already available are often full and the city corporations do not have any scientific waste disposal systems. Even in the 21st century we are dumping waste into a landfill, where it decays and causes diseases to people living miles around it. No wonder in places like Bangalore we had recently seen people living near these landfills revolting and blocking waste carrying trucks.

The need then is to start from the root. First we need a proper waste management system. We need to come up with a system that would categorize organic, inorganic and recyclable waste, and manage them accordingly. Recycling is an area that has not received the due importance in our country. In most developed countries, government norms are in place to ensure that things like glass, paper and plastic are recycled. Here in India, the cost of recycling is more than producing something new, so we don’t bother to go for it. But this is where the government must come in and offer enough subsidies to make it an affordable as well as a financially-attractive sector.

Once we have such a system in place, then what we need are more trashcans in every nook and corner of the country, and a government or private department that would make sure the trash is cleared daily. There should be three bins, for organic, inorganic and recyclable waste and the public should be asked to separate the waste themselves before throwing it in the bin. This might take some effort, because our people are resistant to such changes, so a bit of strictness in terms of the rule will not hurt.

There should be a way to make sure that the concerned department collects the waste and disposes them at the appropriate location. Often we are met by government workers, who owing to the security of their job, are not committed to what they have to do. This attitude will have to change and people should be held accountable for their job. If someone is seen not up to the task or not willing to do something, strict action should be taken to make sure that the work goes unhindered.

Another issue that needs to be addressed here are the need for toilets. One of the biggest problems that India faces is that about half of its population still does not have access to their own toilets. To someone from outside the country, this might seem even absurd, but insiders know that the problem is not just the lack of toilets, it is a cultural avoidance of it. Many communities do not see the importance of a toilet. They are quite happy with the public, communal restroom system and reject any form of effort to modernize it.

Thus what we need then are efforts to create awareness about the need for cleanliness. Only if the people know how important the issue is, will they take the step in the right direction. Education is one important aspect here. Of course since the number of educated people in the country have increased, there is more awareness about these kind of issues.

To conclude, the recent effort from the government is definitely commendable,  but there have to be more effort at the root level if we are to see some difference in the long run.