Mohan Guruswamy | What has led to failure of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

We not only spit everywhere, we piss everywhere, we shit wherever and dump our garbage anywhere

Visiting the Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916, Mahatma Gandhi in his address said: “I visited the Vishvanath 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 hundred and six 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 had rightly launched the Swachh Bharat campaign in 2014 to clean up India.

He had 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 crores. This is not a sum that we cannot afford. Has 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 has largely ended up as a failure.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be lauded for flagging this as a major priority. But more than intentions, he must now look at ways to implement his plans. His ambitions were huge eight years ago.

He also hoped to build 100 smart cities with 24x7 drinking water, zero garbage disposal and total solid waste management with full-scale drainage and sewage systems.

The BJP’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. But we have not even begun it on paper.

The Andhra Pradesh government had estimated that a new capital will cost it Rs 1,00,000 crores. Projecting that, a hundred new cities with an average of a million people each will cost us Rs 100-120 lakh crores over the next 25-35 years. It’s a huge sum, but the begging, borrowing and scrimping has 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 that is more suitable to the task of 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 the 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 civil service inherited from the British Raj and he wanted a new system of public administration that will not just preserve order to facilitate extraction, but will drive change and equitable development. Sardar Patel, however, was against such a radical transformation of the government, and preferred India to be administered by an elite civil service such as the ICS.

This led to the creation of the IAS and the IPS 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 lakhs, all the state governments put together employ another 72.18 lakhs, quasi-government agencies account for a further 58.14 lakhs, and at the local government level, a tier with the most interface with ordinary citizens, we have only 20.53 lakh employees. This simply means that 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. Ditto for sewage systems. As it is, garbage pickup 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 participation of the people. 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 put in charge of each block. Below the BDO were appointed the workers called Village Level Workers (VLW), who were to initiate change in the villages.

Thousands of BDOs and VLWs were trained for the job of delivering an array of government programmes and to take the government down to the villages. 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 India.

The Prime Minister, however, has done well by impressing on people the need to keep their surroundings clean. While people must not litter and dispose them at conveniently appointed places, the job of lifting the garbage from there for disposal is that of the appropriate governmental tier. 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 those at the Central Secretariat in New Delhi, will tell you that the government is not working.
In the time left for him, the Prime Minister should turn his focus on why the government fails to deliver services in India. Only then can he create a Swachh Bharat and a New India.

Next Story