Messy Job: Swachh Bharat
THIS Gandhi Jayanti, we get a good opportunity to laugh at Narendra Modi, he who tried to clean up India. Little does he realise that he is up against a long history of cleanliness that just happened, without much effort from Indians.
Never did Indians, through their history, need to have campaigns of the Swachh Bharat type. There simply were not too many Indians in India to make it grimy. Even open defecation was not the kind of shameful, but unavoidable, public activity in historical times as it has become now.
If there are very few people around, privacy and distance from others is not something that needs to be especially engineered. It just happens. In the past, all that the Indians needed to do was to find an open space and the waste took care of itself. Around 330 million Indians living in the land between the Himalayas to the southern seas is a very different thing from 1,200 million Indians living in the much-truncated area that we call India today. This densification of living creates requirements that Indian society had never handled before in its entire existence.
The simple task of having 500 toilets in one acre, which is the kind of density that exists in many parts of our big towns, simply changes the scale of things. It means designing sewer systems with the appropriate slope; connecting each house to the sewer drain; setting up a sewage treatment plant and so on.
Working piecemeal is easy in comparison and that is how urban settlements in India have worked. So whatever money is available is allocated and spent every year, without the existence of any master plan that might provide order to the chaos.
Existence at such a small scale meant there was little need to build systems to manage a larger population size. With Swachh Bharat, Modi has put his fingers on the pulse of the nation, as it were. Now if he can only find a way to address this cultural dysfunctionality, he will genuinely go down in history as a path-breaking leader.