‘Swachh Bharat’ is bound to fail

While people must not litter, the job of lifting the garbage for disposal is that of the appropriate tier of government

Visiting the Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916, Mahatma Gandhi in his address said: “I visited the Vishwanath temple last evening. If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temples should be as dirty as they are? If even our temples are not models of cleanliness, what can our self-government be? We do not know elementary laws of cleanliness. We spit everywhere. The result is indescribable filth.”

In the 98 years since then things have only worsened. We not only spit everywhere, we piss everywhere, we shit wherever and dump our garbage anywhere. India is easily the most dirty, unhygienic and filthy country in the world. Picking up from here, our Prime Minister has rightly launched the Swachh Bharat campaign to clean up India. He has announced an ambitious campaign to build home toilets for 12 million urban households, 25 million public toilets, and 30 million community toilets.

In all, over 300 million will be helped with “solid waste management practices” and this is to be achieved by 2019 and will cost the nation Rs 62,009 crore. This is not a sum that we cannot afford. Will India become a cleaner, healthier and more hygienic nation, less offensive to sight and smell? I don’t think so and the Swachh Bharat campaign too will end up as a failure.

Nevertheless the Prime Minister must be lauded for flagging this as a priority. But more than intentions, he must look at ways to implement his plans. His ambitions are huge. He also hopes to build one hundred smart cities with 24x7 drinking water, zero garbage disposal and total solid waste management with full-scale drainage and sewerage systems. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto did promise a hundred new cities. And rightly so because new cities are imperative, as by 2050 India will almost double its present urban population by adding another 450 million. It is this urbanisation that will also be its major driver of economic growth.

The Andhra Pradesh government has estimated that a new capital will cost it Rs 100,000 crore. Projecting that, a hundred new cities with an average of a million people each will cost us Rs 100-120 lakh crore over the next 25-35 years. It’s a huge sum, but the begging, borrowing and scrimping have to start now.

But even if we find the money where is the public administration to do it? We now have a highly centralised system more suitable to governing India than serving India. The structure of our public administration, with its preponderance at the national and state capitals and with a tiny fraction left to interface with citizens at a local level, and even these not being answerable to citizens is at the root of our inability to transform this country.

When India became Independent, Jawaharlal Nehru advocated disbanding the British inherited civil service and wanted a new system of public administration that will not just preserve order to facilitate extraction, but will drive change and equitable development. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel however was against such a radical transformation of government, and preferred India to be administered by an elite civil service such as the ICS (Indian Civil Service).

This led to the creation of the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service as the main instruments of administration. But the system remained as before, a system to maintain control rather than transform. The consequences of this are still apparent. The three levels of government together employ about 185 lakh persons. The Central government employs 34 lakh, all the state governments together employ another 72.18 lakh, quasi-government agencies account for a further 58.14 lakh, and at the local government-level, a tier with the most interface with the common citizens, we have only 20.53 lakh employees.

This simply means we have five persons ordering us about, for every one supposedly serving us. What this translates into is that if you build toilets, you won’t have enough people to clean them. As it is garbage pick up is selective, tardy and the signs of failure can be seen in all our cities and villages. It’s not that an attempt was not made to change this centralised system. In 1952, the government launched the community development programme hoping to transform rural India with the people’s participation.

This programme was formulated to provide an administrative framework through which the government would reach down to the district, tehsil/taluka and village levels. All the districts of the country were divided into “development blocks” and a “block development officer (BDO)” was made in charge of each block. Below the BDO were appointed the workers called village level workers (VLW), who were to initiate changes in the villages.

Thousands of BDOs and VLWs were trained for the job. But this highly ambitious and idealistic restructure of government didn’t exactly gel with the existing control mechanism of governance. Before long the two structures meshed and we were back to the old tried and tested system of government meant to rule India and not transform it.

In 1957, the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee assessed the community development programme and the National Extension Service and held that it had largely failed in meeting its objectives. The Ashok Mehta Committee that followed was tasked with evolving an effective and decentralised system of development administration. The committee held that development would only be deep and enduring when the community was involved in the planning, decision-making and implementation process and suggested an early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of necessary resources, power and authority.

Its core recommendation was that the district must be the basic building block and envisaged a two-tier system, with the mandal panchayat at the base and the zila parishad at the top. This structure failed to cater to the needs of rural development. There are various reasons include political and bureaucratic resistance at the state level to share power and resources with local-level institutions, domination of local elites over the major share of the benefits of welfare schemes, lack of capability at the local level and lack of political will.

Consequently, no rural area in India has any worthwhile local government. For that matter nor does any city or town in India have a truly independent municipal administration autonomous of the state governments. It is as if the common people have lost control over their lives and are now victims of the whims and fancies of distant masters.

Mr Modi has done well by impressing on people the need to keep their surroundings clean. While people must not litter and dispose them at convenient appointed places, the job of lifting the garbage from there for disposal is that of the appropriate tier of government. While people are expected not to defecate everywhere, the responsibility of providing sanitation is that of the state.

Building toilets at public places and institutions and impressing on people to use them is laudable, but keeping them working and clean is the job of the state. The condition of most public conveniences, including in the Central Secretariat, will tell you that government is not working. The Prime Minister should turn his focus on why the government fails to deliver services in India. Only then can he make a swachh Bharat.

The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.

( Source : mohan guruswamy )
Next Story