We need a new mission: Clean India

By Rajendra K. Aneja, IANS,

“Will you return to work in India?” I asked Aresh. Here was a teenager studying at one of the best schools in the world, at Winchester in Britain. With sports, extra-curricular activities and academics blended harmoniously in the curriculum, he was a future leader. “No, the filth puts me off. I get sick!”

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Radha, a student at Harvard School, said: “The drive from Mumbai airport via slums, tattered roads, tonnes of trash, is a traumatic welcome to India.” She loves India but cannot work there.

Filth is all-pervading in India. Urban roads overflow with garbage and trash. Garbage collection is inefficient, irregular and incompetent. We use archaic modes like brooms and shovels to garner thrash from streets. We transport it in filthy, stinking lorries, which are neither clean nor disinfected. The garbage collection system alone is not culpable. Citizens throw thrash on streets, spit on walls and shun dustbins. Residential buildings neglect garbage collection and disposal.

The attitude is: keep your home clean, so what if the homes of others and roads become recipients of our filth? But no family is an island by itself. One home’s hygiene cannot be another home’s sickness!

We need the 100-metre rule — have dustbins at every 100 metres on streets and mechanise the collection and disposal of garbage in cities.

As a child, when I was growing up in Mumbai, I remember tankers of water were used to clean the footpaths in the nights. But I have not seen this in Mumbai in the last 45 years. However, roads are cleaned regularly in the nights in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

In Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping zone, mechanical sweepers work throughout the day to ensure virtual “online cleaning”. Towns like Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba in Brazil are kept sparkling to woo tourists.

In smaller Indian towns, the hygiene is even poorer. Streets are narrow and congested, housing more dense. Garbage disposal operations are fledgling. In many interior areas in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar, donkeys carry garbage. Towns are growing rapidly, but they do not have mechanised garbage handling. Drainage systems are inadequate. There are no covered pipes. Putrid water flows through open drains, attracting flies and other insects to spread disease. Dead rats and reptiles float around during the monsoon.

Indian villages retain a modicum of cleanliness, due to the initiatives of the villagers themselves. The fields provide an outlet for water during the monsoon; hence drainage is not a serious issue. The village panchayats are cogent bodies and subject to greater accountability by local villagers. Many panchayats take a keen interest in their civic responsibilities.

I visited a few thousand villages and towns on work, when I headed sales/customer service at Hindustan Unilever. Hygiene levels in villages are frequently better than in cities. However, villages are ill-equipped to handle outbreak of diseases and natural disasters.

Later, Unilever work took me to the interiors of Latin America and Africa. Villages and slums there are cleaner than those in India. A Brazilian colleague remarked: “Indians keep clean temples, homes, but dirty cities.”

A repulsive feature of our society is the absence of adequate toilet facilities. It is disgraceful to see people relieving themselves on the roads, in bylanes or in the fields. It is reprehensible that after six decades of independence, we have inadequate toilets.

The BBC and Economist magazine estimate that 700 million Indians, almost 70 percent of the population, do not have latrines attached to their homes. This is outrageous. What is the use of having the technology to conquer the moon if we cannot even provide a toilet to every citizen? Public toilets should be built at every one kilometre distance on all roads.

Panchayats, municipalities and state governments do not realise the importance of providing adequate toilets. There is a scattering of these facilities in towns, but they are pathetically maintained, stink severely and become disease-carriers. Full-time paid attendants should maintain and clean public toilets. Municipalities can recover the costs of maintaining public toilets, by charging users a fee.

Mission “India Clean” has to become a national passion to have an impact. It must be translated into a simple campaign, by communication agencies, and should be communicated through basic messages and symbols in every town and village. The leadership and ownership of this movement should be local. Ordinary citizens and NGOs must lead the campaign for hygiene and cleanliness in homes, villages, neighbourhoods and towns.

India aspires to become a global power, an economic powerhouse. To achieve these goals, we need to clean the sludge and slush of centuries from our streets.

(06-09-2009 The author is CEO of a food business in the Middle East. He has authored a book “Agenda For a New India” and can be reached at [email protected])