India is getting over the annual hangover of cleaning the country. Narendra Modi, in one broom sweep has created an eternal monument to himself. Whenever a broom is picked up in front of cameras thoughts go out to our dear Prime Minister. Many also point out that he has reduced Mahatma Gandhis philosophy to that of just ‘cleaning up’.
Mahatma Gandhi, by cleaning his own feaces indicated that we should be responsible for the dirt we generate. He was also putting the Indian community on notice for the horrifying treatment they had been meting out to sections of people for millenia, which continues to this day.
By working on the photo-ops that the Swaach Bharat campaign generates our leaders and their followers are doing very little to really clean up the mess. In modern parlance the Swaach Bharat campaign is all about End-of-Pipe solutions.
Cleaning up is what one does after things get dirty. So, the question remains why should we allow things to get dirty? Therefore shouldn’t the campaign be about not dirtying India? The answer to both is a socio-economic one.
The Social Aspect
‘This is not my job’ is what the caste system and Dharma is about. For centuries the caste system insured that there was somebody else to clean up after the rest. Dharma also stated that one should do ones duty according to ones caste. Thus there was one particular group of people who were supposed to do just that - clean up after others.
Not long ago I was speaking to a cleaner at a hospital who shared an incident with me. She said she had stopped a person from spitting on the wall and had asked him who would clean up. He answered that was her job.
But, this is nothing new, as Indians we constantly litter and spit. It has got so bad that walls have tiles portraying Hindu gods and symbols to prevent people from spitting there. It is not that there are no bins, people refuse to go close to the bin to dispose their waste. Like bad hoopsters they throw their waste from distance, hoping it enters the bin. So, one finds the area around bins covered with waste. People are unwilling to make the minimum effort to properly dispose the waste they generate.
Which brings us to another issue, the habit of keeping a home clean at the cost of their surroundings. Amitabh Bachchan has been promoting the Mere 10 Guz initiative. As per this campaign people are asked to keep a few square feet around their house/office/shop clean. Where will all the waste and dust go? This campaign could inadvertently begin ‘border violations’ between neighbours.
The Economic Aspect
Tapping the bottom of the pyramid has not only increased the quantum of non-biodegradable waste but has introduced it to new places. Capturing new markets, both in terms of consumers and geography, packaging has played a pivotal role leading to more waste.
Growing consumerism increases the quantum of waste generated - both biodegradable and non biodegradable. One does know that composting or bio-methanation are ways to deal with biodegradable waste, but what about non-biodegradable waste. What does one do with the 1 Re sachets and the kaleidoscope of packaging? The easiest answer is convert them them into fuel pellets. This is once again an End-of-Pipe solution which is not only polluting but also exonerates the companies who use and push such kind of packaging. Companies that manufacture and sell products need to be responsible for the packaging they use. What this means is that they should have a system to ensure that the packaging is returned to them. Thus, Coke and Pepsi would have an empty bottle collection system, a similar system would be necessary for white good manufacturers. As the size of products sold by FMCG companies varies they should pay a fee to municipalities for the waste they cause and for the proper collection and disposal of the packaging.
Currently these companies are not paying any social and environmental cost for the use of packaging. Indian citizens are paying a social, environmental and health cost because of such packaging.
Further, is it hypocritical to promote such a campaign even as the government simultaneously goes hammer and tongs in promoting dirty and polluting technologies like coal fired thermal power plants?
The Swaach Bharat campaign has led to clones. The Rally for the Rivers is an example. The Rally for the Rivers suggests growing trees on the river banks to save rivers. Like the Swaach Bharat campaign this one too is foisting an untenable End-of-Pipe solution. No mention is made about the rivers dying because of agricultural run-off and the dumping of raw sewage into rivers. The photographs of the aftermath of the Ganesh and Durga poojas shows another aspect of the threats faced by rivers.
The Swaach Bharat and other similar campaign undermines the nations ability to act responsibly and seek accountability from others. The solution it suggests is a facade that prevents acknowledgment of a greater problem which is our ingrained mindset that permeates our social and economic behaviour.