By Liaquath Mirza
Come October the ‘cleanliness fever’ grips our polity. Mahathma’s birthday is now swatchtha abhiyan day. Mahatma is now the mascot for swatch Baharat initiative. His spectacles now adorn municipal bins and government hoardings of clean and pure drive. Government mandated cleanliness drive takes on fevered and frenzied pitch on 2nd October. Circulars will be sent out to all central, state and PSU offices to compulsorily attend the clean initiative in their respective offices.
Reluctant babus of officialdom looking forward to a cosy family day are dragged out of their homes and made to pick up brooms and buckets. The charade of selfies with brooms unfolds, recorded to posterity and such snaps mandated to be shared with higher offices.
Politicians of all hues from panchayats to parliament come out of the woodwork in colour coordinated clothes and their party flag themed bandanas posing for the press and Tv while enacting the roadside skit of swatch Baharat at important junctions and chowrahas.
Who is who of the film and sporting world, major and minor celebrities descend at fashionable and upscale spots of all metros complete with their pristine pure white clothes, swatch Baharat mission logo tee shirts. Brooms in hand and SBM caps on head, expensive goggles on eyes and then proceed with diligent cleaning while posing for photos simultaneously. All in all taking the menial activity and elevating it into a pretty cosy picture of one giant happy smiling occasion. Depending upon the event managers’ enthusiasm levels there may even be assorted activities of full marathons, half marathons,swatchta walks and such other cultural events. With this done the stars ascend back to their heavenly abodes in their luxurious limos cockles of their hearts warmed with satisfaction of doing their two bit community service.
And yet…. nothing much changes on the ground. Take a ride or drive around the city / town the next day and you will realise that city has been reset to its usual filthy self.
The very scarce litter bins that one may find miles apart would still be overflowing. Empty plots and open lots in residential localities,in up and coming colonies would still bear mounds of littered waste. If one starts early one will also notice the less fortunate amongst us hurrying with mineral water bottles filled with tap water making a dash for the shrubberies or railway tracks for attending nature’s call.
And yet…. open the newspapers you will find Government sponsored centre spreads advertising success stories of swatch Baharat mission. Switch on the TV and you will find the ageing super star of Hindi cinema engaged in a light hearted banter with a cute kid exhorting the villagers to build their own toilets with the help of swatch Baharat mission. His deep timbre voice resonates with the virtues of carrying out morning ablutions behind closed doors. Plus you will find many more such happy faces declaring many a ‘shauchalay’ success stories. The masses are asked to reflect upon ‘izzat’ and ‘maryada of bahu betis.
One nationalistic star even went ahead and produced block buster movie, a love story revolving around the theme of toilet and laughed all the way to bank.
The happy stories, the success statistics somehow did not seem to have added up and translated into reality on the ground. Remove the rose tinted glasses and you will find that cities big and small, villages across the length and breadth continue to grapple with open defecation, unmanageable pile up of mountains of waste and rubble.
One walk around the bus stations, train stations and densely populated roads going past the shanties and slums you will realise that the more the noise of swatchtha mission the less has changed on the street.
Yes, degrees of cleanliness may vary but filth is a constant. Those elite roads and more important posh venues do get cleaned up daily but for the rest, people and waste simply have to learn to co-exist.
Our streets do get an occasional clean up when the locality attracts some VIP movement for some ‘udghatan ceremony’ or some such political event. Then the roads gets spruced, swept and pot holes filled up overnight and if we are lucky we would even get a brand new black topped road. Road borders are drawn and demarcated with white sanitizing powder all along till the venue of udghatan.
But of course the down side to this tamasha would be having to deal with traffic jams for hours and negotiating road obstructing banners and welcome arches narrowing the already narrow roads further down.
Overflowing litter bins with packs of stray dogs and herds of pigs populate the surroundings living off the discarded waste is a common sight. A tour of the neighbourhood vegetable mandis will give you a glimpse of emaciated cows and buffalos let loose feeding not just on the vegetable waste but also discarded plastic wrappers and pouches. Drinking in all these unsightly sights one wonders what ever happened to SBM and its earlier avatar Nirmal Baharat. Are they just illusory optics?
The way I see the problem is that we Indians are habitual litter bugs. Our cleanliness is restricted to the confines of our homes. Majority of us have poor civic sense despite the celebrity appeals and exhortations.
A person driving a top end car would not think twice on opening the door at traffic signals and spewing a river of red paan on to the road. Our public buildings’ stairs and corners would be painted red with paan chewing enthusiasts. The helpless managers of such buildings often invoke all the gods of all religions by getting multi coloured tiles of Ishwar, Allah and Jesus and getting them fixed at ‘strategic’ danger points of corners and stairs.
When invited to weddings and sundry functions we swarm around the food stalls with paper, plastic and Styrofoam plates and cups, eat with gusto and just throw away the plates and glasses where ever it pleases us except of course in the plastic drums meant for collecting them.
To add this madness of free for all littering I have discovered that the superstitious amongst us surreptitiously leave vermilion dabbed lemons, rice and such other assorted items filled in disposable paper plates in the middle of the non-busy roads in colonies. This I was told is to ward off evil and misfortunes that have fallen on them and by leaving the spell cast food stuff they hope to pass them on to unknown unsuspecting strangers who may chance upon crossing them while walking or driving. Much like a baton in the relay race of misfortunes. While nothing will come off it what is condemnable is the evil intentions of such ignoramuses.
While littering is just one angle to the revelries they also hold contests as to who breaks the most beer bottles. And the affluent wastrels among them come with their big SUVs stuffed with coolers inside and loud cacophonous music outside.
The scene resembles a battle front the next day with dead and broken bottles and poor unsuspecting stray dogs getting hurt while running across the splinters. Somewhat saner drunks among them leave the bottles intact for the urchin rag pickers to pick them and make some money at the raddi walas.
Now we look at the spiritual,deeply religious ones who when they update their pooja rooms with brand new photo frames of their favourite Gods don’t know what to do with the old photo frames. They respectfully pack such photo frames and leave them when nobody is watching at the bottom of big trees. Wonder why temple board personnel have not thought of opening a counter at temples to accept such photo frames and deal with them appropriately. This way the devotees need not have to feel pangs of guilt of abandoning the old photos for swanky new ones.
Coming to the responsibilities of Governments and municipalities’ one finds that there is this all important angle of poor infrastructure. Finding a litter bin would be a intensive search endeavour. Municipalities are poorly equipped to deal with the day to day waste leave alone adopt such quaint concepts as waste segregation. Even if concerned citizen’sseparate waste and hand over, the handler would dump it in the same auto or rickshaw and takes it away to the dumping yard. They are poorly staffed and also poorly paid most probably. And my guess is that they are poorly funded also.
And then there is this caste angle to this problem that is unique to Indian subcontinent. Our ancestors in all their primitive wisdom and glory had decided to neatly label outcastes among us as chamars, bhangis, and bestow them with such other demeaning names and reduced them to clearing dead carcasses and cleaning human wastes.
According to a book written by our PM when in scholarly mood in a literary avatar, these untouchables find divinity even in this demeaning job and that’s why they keep doing it despite the stigma, as a God ordained duty. In what wisdom the learned one saw salvation in this inhuman practice only he should know.
We need these untouchables to touch our filth and clean up our mess and yet even touching their shadows is considered polluting. Nothing worse than this kind of segregation. While some of us assign this inhuman task as God ordained duty couched in philosophical jibber jabber, most of don’t even have the consciousness to even acknowledge their existence. If one takes a look at the demographic of class D employees of municipalities, the safai karmacharis tasked with the job of clearing waste, almost all of them would be from these untouchable castes.
Reservations here are in full operation,in fact far in excess, no grumblings from the upper castes here. And yet paradoxically when the same jobs get mechanised and modern equipment is procured and a fancy name is given to it by calling it ‘facilities management’ there is a clamour for cleaning and maintaining such hi-tech office buildings, airports and hotels.
Upper caste business people smell a business opportunity and moneyed contractors vie for a pie in burgeoning service industry. And poor from all castes compete to get such a job which offers them some monetary security.
Despite all the hoo haa about mission swatch Baharat and fund raising by way of swatch Baharat cess riding on service tax payments, no qualitative change appears to have taken place in the lives of people who still have to unclog the city’s drains manually. And still have to keep on losing their lives to the noxious drain fumes. (Wonder why the enterprise of Gujarati chai wallas of making tea from the drain gas fuel has not caught on nationally)
We keep seeing news of people still dying while carrying out manual scavenging work. It’s like their lives are of no consequence to all of us collectively. Their deaths don’t prick our conscience one bit. I wonder what happened to all those crores collected from us as swatch Baharatcess. Why were those funds not utilized to equip all municipalities all across with modern equipment so that not one life is lost to manual scavenging again? I am given to understand that we have enacted laws that have abolished manual scavenging long back and yet here we are witnessing the inhuman crime against a dispossessed community.
When lakhs and crores of rupees can be allocated for corporate waivers and bad loans what stops the Governments from investing a few thousand crores in mechanised equipment and modern waste management technologies?
In conclusion the dream of a swatch Baharat will remain just that… a dream unless there is a large scale change of attitude in us, the citizens and a dedicated approach from the Governments to this monumental problem.