Swachh Bharat and Me

Swacch Bharat

Leaders and Photo-ops make for good conversation. Swacch Bharat needs to raise the game and improve the conversation about cleanliness – and for that it is good to see the leaders of the nation pick up the broom and join in. Even if it is very clear to everyone that they really do not know how to hold the broom, let alone wield it effectively. India is a forgiving nation – we understand. They have done their bit. It is a bit like our movies. If we believed it all, then all our heroes and heroines would be pathologically poly-amourous. Sequentially of course. But if we did not go along with it, then would we laugh, cry or dance along with them? Sure, the nominal demonstration has value, and we go along with that.

But I wonder if that is really what a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was meant to be? Is that the intent? Or is it an idea that found its TRP byte and stayed with it? Surely Swacchh Bharat cannot be about doing a job that is allocated to government employees that are paid for by our tax rupees? Surely Swacch Bharat is a lot more than holding a broom. The goal is clear – we need a cleaner India. There have been many who have fallen ill living virtually or even literally in the middle of garbage. It is a travesty that the poor do not have access to clean water even for drinking let alone the daily necessities. Water on tap seems to be a lower priority than simple access to cleanliness. Countries with far lower water supplies than India’s have been able to ensure adequate water supplies to ensure cleanliness and health. Surely swacchh bharat is also about good toilets, safe washing facilities and better habits among the people.

This is not just about money. Often the rich and the poor are equally guilty of littering. It is often the rich who wipe their hands after eating on silk curtains and the poor who wash their hands well after a meal. This is about access, information and behaviours. And enablement.

Not all who wield the broom have done it for a photo opportunity. Many areas have been spruced up by volunteers. I wonder where they dumped the garbage they collected. Was there are system to take it forward from there? Was it segregated? Recycled? Was there a landfill? Are landfills marked? What happens to toxic waste in the garbage? Is it isolated? Myriad questions.

The issues in cleaning India are not as simple as a surface level tidy up. This needs a proper strategy with incentives and penalties at the local level. But even more than that it needs a proper understanding of the nature of the rubbish that is generated and innovations to recycle it effectively and productively. There has been much work done on understanding the quality of rubbish generated in India and given traditional recycling habits it does not come as a surprise that most of value has already been extracted. Even the calorific value of garbage was low when estimated in the past. This is where some investment and effort need to be expended, else all we are doing is shifting rubbish from one place to another.

Beyond the symbolism, valuable as it is, there comes pragmatism. I appreciate leaders showing the way, but given my training, I cannot turn a blind eye simple economic analysis. Calling on the law of comparative advantage here – how does it make sense for anyone to give up on work that will generate value to millions of people/save thousands of rupees/earn more to spend that time doing something that creates less economic value? I would honestly rather spend my day earning enough to invest in a person who starts a garbage recycling business. I would rather use my resources to ensure that such a business has daily revenues. I too have been invited to sweep the streets, and I thank my friends for that honour, but I am not worthy. My sweeping the streets influences few. My working hard on what I am good at, earning elsewhere and using that earning to pay for more cleanliness is a better way for me. I do apologise for not joining this bandwagon – and the loss of camaraderie, of a sense of purpose, of the brotherhood of Swachh is all mine.

But I do assure you, and promise myself that the Brotherhood of Swacchh always has and will continue to include me. If anyone litters in front of me, I will pick it up for them. If I have to travel, I will carry my own rubbish bag. I will take my own bag when going shopping and not ask for plastic bags. I’ll even carry spare cloth bags for other customers around me – risking those looks and being labeled a sanctimonious preaching aunty. At home, I will try to generate less garbage – composting peel, tea leaves and more. Swacch Bharat matters – it is probably one of the most significant movements for India because it fosters care, mindfulness and better behaviours. It is the first step to investing in quality.

Yes, and Yes again to the Swachh Bharat Campaign. I am in. And I am in for now, and for the long haul, not just for this starting line.