Sunday 14 April 2024

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Would Mahatma Gandhi be Pleased with the 'Swachh Bharat' Mission?


The government has chosen to make Gandhiji uni-dimensional; to make young Indians believe that, apart from India's freedom, cleanliness was his only message and mission.

Who would not want a Swachh Bharat? A fine phrase, but what exactly does it mean? It's one of the first initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He first spoke of 'Swachh Bharat' in his speech on 15 August 2014, just a few months after his landslide election verdict. On Gandhi Jayanti that year — 2 October 2014 — the Swachh Bharat campaign was officially launched.

The weeks that followed were comical. Politicians and top bureaucrats appeared on television holding a broom for a few minutes, 'sweeping' already-clean streets in Lutyens Delhi and sundry state capitals. Some of these streets were actually scattered with leaves just before these leaders made their appearance.

Two years on, the twin websites of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan — the urban component is under the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs while the rural component is under the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation — have set out their respective achievements.

The urban mission says 30.74 lakh individual toilets and 2.26 lakh public toilets have been built, while 1,150 cities have been declared open defecation free. It adds that 100 per cent door to door garbage collection has been accomplished in 44,650 wards, 88.4 MW of electricity has been generated from waste, and nearly 1.65 lakh tonnes of compost has been created from waste.

The rural mission says 4.94 crore toilets have been built since 2 October 2014, marking a 30 per cent increase in rural households with toilets. It adds that nearly 2.5 lakh villages in 203 districts have been declared open defecation free.

The numbers are impressive. But would Mahatma Gandhi have been thrilled with this achievement? Somehow, I doubt it. For Gandhiji, cleanliness as an article of faith first arose from his implacable opposition to the Hindu tradition of 'untouchability'.

Cleaning toilet pots (there were no flushing toilets then) and clearing out night soil was the work of the lowest untouchable scavenger castes in India. Gandhiji wanted each person in his ashrams to clean his or her own toilet pot. The thought behind this was two-fold. "To destroy the twin evil of untouchability and insanitation became his passion. So seared was his soul that as a token of expiation for the treatment meted out to the outcastes, he ultimately took to scavenging, declaring that India’s independence could wait, but not the eradication of the curse of untouchability," writes Pyarelal in his biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

It was also clear to Gandhiji that for any change to be meaningful, it must take root in the minds of the people. His concept of 'Satyagraha' was so much more profound than the western Christian principle of 'turning the other cheek'.

Non-violent non-cooperation required steely resolve and iron discipline. No compromise was possible on this bedrock principle. More than once, Gandhiji was labelled a British agent because he called off nationwide movements at their very peak, owing to violence. But this did not deter him. He believed that unless the essence of Satyagraha gripped the minds of the people, India's freedom was fraught with peril.

His views on cleanliness were no different. "Without infinite patience it (is) impossible to get the people to do any work. It is the reformer who is anxious for the reform, and not society, from which he should expect nothing better than opposition, abhorrence and even mortal persecution," wrote Gandhiji in his autobiography.

Rabindranath Tagore recalled Gandhiji's visit to Shantiniketan in February and March 1915.

Guruji always wanted the boys of his school to themselves clean their rooms, make their beds, cook their meals and wash their dishes. But, he bemoaned, "The trouble was that I did not clean my own room, nor make my own bed, nor cook my own meals, nor wash my own dishes. Consequently, the boys did not take me seriously."

But Gandhiji cleaned his own room, made his own bed, washed his own dishes and washed his own clothes. The boys were ashamed, and began doing these tasks.

Gandhiji asked the scavengers to not clear nightsoil for a few days. Life in the school became almost impossible with the odour of faeces. Then Gandhiji himself carried the pots on his head to a faraway field and buried the contents underground. Soon the boys of the highest castes were vying with one another to have the honour of doing the work of the outcaste scavengers, Tagore recalls.

Leading by example means much more than photo-ops carrying a broom. Real leaders demonstrate real commitment. 

Unless people internalise an idea, it cannot gain force. This Gandhiji firmly believed. That is why, even though he was deeply committed to the welfare of cows, he firmly and resolutely refused to entertain any demand for a ban on cow slaughter.

Babu Rajendra Prasad, who went on to become independent India's first President, told Gandhiji that he had received 50,000 postcards, between 25,000 and 30,000 letters and many thousands of telegrams demanding a ban on cow-slaughter. But Gandhiji was unmoved. "In India no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter. I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow, but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus," he said.

For Gandhiji, cleanliness was next to godliness. Asked by a foreign correspondent in 1946 what he would do if he were made Viceroy of India for one day, Gandhiji replied that he would spend the day cleaning the Augean Stables of the scavengers near the Viceroy's House, and that he would do the same the next day and the day after...

His thinking was about so much more than cleanliness. This government, however, has chosen to make him uni-dimensional, to make young Indians believe that, apart from India's freedom, cleanliness was his only message and mission.

His message was of spiritual cleansing; not only for India but the world. It was for peace, non-violence, love and brotherhood. He spoke for the meek and the poor, for the unprivileged. In his Satyagraha — a fight for the truth that is eternal — the adversary was to be disarmed without a duel. 

So if you are wondering why so many lakhs of toilets built under the Swachh Bharat scheme are today being used as store rooms while the householders continue to use the great outdoors to ease themselves, it is because this government has chosen to merely invoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi, not to learn from him.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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AAP/AK is providing Training Courses for the unemployed Youth, so that they can earn for their decent living and not remain at the mercy of corrupt people.

AAP/AK is providing good care for the old aged people by setting up Old Age Homes.

World is praising AK & his Aam Aadmi Clinic.

World is praising MS & his Education Reform.

Many many more AK/AAP has given to the people of Delhi.

God Bless AAP/AK.

Jack De Goan |

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.


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