Clean India Mission: will anything change? – Piyush Ravi, India

Public defecation, public urination, dirt, filth and heap of garbage lying out in the open in public space are not rare sights in India.

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A boy defecating in the open of an Indian slum (source: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

In the year 1994, an outbreak of plague in Surat resulted from the neglected sanitation system and brought seminal changes in the way the waste disposal works in the city. However, not much has changed in other cities across the country. About six years later, in 2000, the Solid Waste Policy was framed, specifying the duties and responsibilities for cities and citizens of India.

Almost fifteen years have passed and the situation remains more or less the same.
Government apathy and public negligence have made the condition worse and additionally, the increased pressure on existing infrastructure, mainly due urban migration, has lead to more slums without even the most basic facilities, like potable water and toilets. The waste management system of many cities is in shambles.

Choked drains and overflowing sewers due to the poorly planned and in my opinion, pathetic sewerage system is resulting in many vector-borne diseases, especially during monsoon. Also shocking is the condition of sanitation workers who are poorly equipped and exposed to hazardous and poisonous substances on regular basis. For instance, they are made to clean manholes and open blockages without having any kind of protection. An interview by S. Anand, of the Tehelka magazine, brought out their horrible conditions of work. Anand explains, “Entering the narrow, dark drain, the worker pushes his only weapon, the khapchi (a spliced bamboo stick) to dislodge the block. This exercise could take hours.” “Holding our breath, closing our eyes, we plunge headlong. We feel our way, poking with the khapchi.”, says Sateesh.

It is then that a sudden blast of putrid sludge – besides methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – that assaults the worker. “Even if we manage not to swallow the toxic muck, it manages to enter our bodies.” Odourless and colourless, the carbon gases can cause suffocation. The scene is documented in the Drishti film ‘Lesser Humans’. The film makes the viewer recoil in horror and was considered too horrible for American audiences to watch. It is no wonder as to why the average lifespan of sanitation workers is just 45 years. Major changes need to be made to improve the condition of the poorly planned sanitation system and the ill-equipped sanitation workers, who still remain unfazed by the challenges caused by our defective structure.

The government of India officially launched ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan’ (Clean India
Mission) on October 2, 2014 with much fanfare. It is a national level campaign, covering 4041 statutory towns, to clean the streets, roads and infrastructure of the country and was described as”beyond politics” and “inspired by patriotism”. However, a few months down the line, no one is talking about ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan’ anymore. Most of the cities of India face acute infrastructure shortage and in order to place an effective sanitation system, they will need dedication, patience andperseverance.

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Civic workers sweeping in Hyderabad, India (source: Mahesh Kumar A/AP)

Are our people willing to run the marathon to change the system? Will our country go beyond usual photo ops and catchy slogans to make some small but real contribution? Or is this just another government plan that is going to give inconsequential results? The answers will be before us in some years and, despite all the problems and unwillingness, there is still some hope that India will change.

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