Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

India needs a thorough clean-up

By Raj Liberhan

In more ways than one, we need to clean up our country. The philosophical framework has been embedded in our heritage. Our scriptures and rituals have all underscored the need for personal hygiene and usage of public spaces with care and consideration. Yet we are dirty in every way imaginable. Our public spaces bear witness to what can be best described as a huge landfill site which is used by everybody as a mode of public waste disposal. No wonder we have airborne and waterborne viruses of all shapes and sizes thriving in our cities and villages. The population is suffering as a result, lives are shortened and health costs are on the rise for everyone.

In these circumstances, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is a vital mission launched by the Prime Minister to rescue and salvage the nation’s good health through promoting cleanliness. Naturally, it all began with a message and some symbolic inaugurals, but there can be no doubt that this mission needs to be part of the nation’s DNA if it has to progress in any direction. The policy architecture has been set out for the rural and urban India and it envisages the following objectives:
i. Bring out an improvement in the general quality of life in rural areas by promoting cleanliness, hygiene and eliminating open defecation.

ii. Accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas to achieve Swachh Bharat by Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday in 2019.

iii. Motivate communities and Panchyati Raj institutions to adopt sustainable sanitation practices and facilities through awareness creation and health education.

The central government appreciates that the fulfillment of these ambitions rests largely in the hands of the different States. The implementation strategy has, therefore, been left to individual State governments and they can devise their campaigns based on their need to organise resources effectively. The Centre is also helping out with resources and advice on preparation of City Sanitation Plans by providing templates. These City Sanitation Plans will have to be powered with financial and human resources to make the whole idea of cleanliness a reality.

The people of this country need to realise that waste disposal and cleanliness is not the responsibility of the state only. They have to play a vital role to sustain cleanliness. The culture of casualness and indifference to keeping cities clean needs to be embedded from school onwards to citizens of all categories. They are equal partners in this mission. Yes, the state needs to create the infrastructure of cleanliness, but citizen needs to adhere to the protocols of clean maintenance and imbibe the culture to the point of making it a fetish.

The problem, as always, is not in policy but how to make it work. We have had policy pronouncements with the best objectives, but most have failed at the altar of implementation. Indeed this has been the bane of our growth story all these years. Anyway, it is now crunch time and failure in policy implementation will have disastrous consequences for our environment. To induce a sense of urgency, a rewards and competition architecture needs to be created. We begin with schools in a given state that can be incentivised to compete for the cleanest school in the district. A gold, silver and bronze star rating can be introduced and every six months the premises can be reviewed by an independent panel of citizens.

The students can elect their own administrative council to monitor and implement cleaning schedules. The star rating awarded can be displayed on its uniform and logo everywhere for the city to acknowledge that this school is indeed the cleanest in the city. At the end of the year, a state award can be created for the victorious school. The award and rating will be valid for one year. This initiative needs the involvement of the citizenship and cannot be only state-controlled because then it will not gain traction of the public sentiment and thus become another poorly implemented policy. As schools are the foundation of public spirit, it would be easy to enlist the support of the parents as well to sustain the culture of cleanliness outside their homes.

The next level of the cleanliness program scale is harder to incentivise and sustain. Ultimately, the municipal body has to anchor the city’s cleanliness program. Absolutely no choice here! And these are largely defunct or near defunct in terms of resources, human or financial, and total absence of leadership. It is a gigantic task to energise these bodies to lead the cleanliness agenda.

Nevertheless, it has to be done. The best way would be to enter into a performance contract with each municipality, detailing respective obligations and the right to funds for services performed. The failure to perform will entail penalties. The services are not only about cleaning through sweeping; it is the whole gamut of protocols required for waste management and effluent treatments. As the leadership and delivery instruments in the municipalities are flawed, the deficits will have to be filled in through deputed personnel and contracted managers. To put it starkly, politics will have to take a backseat in the transformation of the role of the municipality and professionalism will have to be allowed to take us out of the current morass. This has to begin in the state capitals with a serious planning initiative on how to make it happen in telescoped phases.

The political class needs to appreciate that the fundamentals of structures and institutions have been rotting for a long time. They have to be resurrected as we really have no replacements in the pipeline. Nor can patchwork fixes yield any results as the situation is beyond transitory solutions. The demand of the moment is for enduring solutions and these can only come from ethical appreciation of creating an agenda and serious and diligent implementation of the same. To be sure, we need many clean-ups metaphorically, but let’s start with the physical dimensions and the spiritual will soon follow.

(Article courtesy: Millennium Post, 7, April, 2015. The author is an eminent Urban Planner, former Director of India Habitat Centre, New Delhi and is on the Advisory Council of SPMRF)