Fuel for the cleanliness drive
It is commendable that the Gandhian notion finds exclusive endorsement after decades, but imbibing it as a national culture has a long way to go
Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was flagged off in 2014 after the much-looked-forward-to government was ushered in with the greatest expectations. Fanfare galore, the cleanliness mission was among the earliest aggrandised undertaking to be spotlighted and projected by the BJP-led NDA establishment. Well-swept streets are a pleasant sight but it has been brought to public focus time and again that the most crucial and cumbersome aspect of cleanliness is a proper and effective system of disposal of waste of any kind. Though officially SBM has a very specific target of eliminating open defecation through construction of toilets during this government's term, the idea of this initiative touches several other aspects of the lives of people.
However, myriad aspects and roadblocks loom preventing and questioning the essence of this goal. With respect to building toilets, an array of interconnected predicaments come to the fore, bringing to highlight the very basic sanitation and hygiene-related concerns that remain unaddressed for a host of people. The most obvious is the matter pertaining to the functionality of the rapidly constructed toilets. The glaring contrast between the numbers registered and the on-ground implementation is a glimpse of difference between realising a target in terms of statistics against actual functionality. Menstrual health and hygiene remains an area to demand exclusive attention as this is a determinant of several other indicators of a healthy life – immediately and in the future, and for the individual and for others closely connected with her. Among the most peculiar stories that surfaced regarding the progressing work of toilet-building was that of impeded socialising of village women due to toilets built at home. This brings out a very ignored but pervasive social aspect pertaining to matters of cleanliness.
What has nearly a blind eye turned to it politically and is socially a sensitive matter, the most gruesome tasks of maintaining cleanliness is done by a class of people who are, due to their work, pushed to the periphery of civilised society. Close to 2.5 lakh manual scavengers engage in a task that reflects the failure of the government on many levels. First of all, a legally prohibited thing continues to be normalised due to the popular perception that when need strikes, it is no help intellectualising the indignity. Secondly, the scope of such indignity is perpetuated as the 'need' continues to be expected in the absence of a comprehensive method to reduce and eventually eradicate the malpractice. Finally, what can actually put an end to this is initiatives pertaining to two main domains: the government deciding to treat and not just dispose sewage in a manner that the matter of manual scavenging is unclogged to some extent; and promoting innovation and support to willing and able individuals and organisations to devise alternate methods of clean dealing with dirt on a larger scale.
Socially, the practice of manual scavenging is rooted in the traditional (Hindu) Indian society, hence the act is largely not met with the reprimand that it ideally deserves. What used to be a traditional method of dividing labour has managed to stay alive in this appalling form due to the apathy of the higher-ups at all levels. But cutting across lines of social and economic divide, whether it is well-fitted high-end bathrooms or a minimalistic toilet in a village in nowhere, the matter of safely disposing and treating sewage – as is with managing other solid waste - together with the necessary supplementary developments is essential for cleaning up India for good environment and better health. It is commendable that the Gandhian notion finds exclusive endorsement now after decades, but imbibing it as a national culture in smaller ways has a distance to go.
(The author is Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal)