New broom must sweep clean

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On 2nd October 2014, an extraordinary sight was seen on television, broadcast by almost every news channel across India. Over 80 million people stood perplexed by the vision they saw before them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, broom in hand, was vigorously sweeping the dust off the filthy streets of Delhi. It was the beginning of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, making India clean and ridding the country of open defecation. “Har sapna sach karega India, banega Swachh India” (Every dream will come true, India will become clean) read the front pages of newspapers the next day.

Is it really possible that India can be cleaned up by 2019

Having travelled across all five continents, be it affluent cities like Florida and London, not-so-wealthy towns like Bucaramanga (Colombia) and Marrakesh (Morocco), one finds differences in quality of infrastructure, yet one attribute which is common to all is cleanliness. In every village, town, city, visited, the thought that comes to mind is: “I wish India were this clean.”

Gurgaon, popularly known as Millennium City, is host to about 250 Fortune 500 companies. Its close proximity to the capital gives it immense significance. Having more than 30 shopping malls, seven golf courses and luxury shops, the city has everything except a functioning citywide drainage and sewer system, public sidewalks, good constructed roads or even an efficient garbage collection and disposal system. The Millennium City is placed at a shameful 466th out of 476 cities, right at the bottom of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan rankings of the cleanest (and dirtiest) towns and cities in India.

Deputy Commissioner TL Satyaprakash, asked to explain Gurgaon’s low ranking, commented, “I will hold meetings with HUDA and MCG officials to introspect where Gurgaon lacks.” According to a report done in July 2013 by MCG officials, Gurgaon generates 600 tonnes of municipal waste every single day, though some experts put the actual figure to be 800-1,000 tonnes. As one walks down Kapashera road which connects Delhi to Gurgaon as an alternative to NH-8, huge dumps of garbage can be seen on either side. One of the major factors contributing to this waste is construction debris.

Typically, in India, surplus wealth goes into ostentatious marriages or building and rebuilding palatial houses. Further, there is a tendency to demolish and reconstruct houses every now and then. This, coupled with an expanding family, leads to continuous renovations, additions and alterations. Proudly considering ourselves as citizens of a free country, we believe it is our right to throw construction waste on the roadside, expecting poor municipal committees, to whom we just pay meagre house tax, to pick up and dispose of the waste. Conveniently, we find an empty plot with no occupant, and dump our debris there at night. And as it is in human nature to “drift with the waves and go with the flow”, everyone follows the same path, dumping their household trash in the same plot. Gradually the garbage piles up and it becomes a common spot for everyone, including the municipal workers, to dump their disposable waste. These debris dumps can be seen all over the city, and also become one of the big sources of pollution, as per environmentalists.

How can the technological and corporate sector contribute?

There are enough laws in the rule book but there is a need to devise means of implementation and enforcement. We are a nation of IT (Information Technology), with our companies catering to the global appetite for software, yet we are not even able to free ourselves of the need to make physical stops at toll booths for making payments. The Modi regime has started using IT, creating a SwachhBharat app, connecting via Twitter and social media, to influence opinion in the youth and Gen-next. Modi selected nine public figures to propagate this campaign: Sachin Tendulkar, Priyanka Chopra, Anil Ambani, Baba Ramdev, Salman Khan, Shashi Tharoor, cast of TV serial Tarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashma, Mridula Sinha and Kamal Haasan. They were very carefully selected as they were not only role models but leaders followed across various spectrums of society. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) itself opened a Twitter page and invited people to load ideas, initiatives and actions to exchange to propagate the mission. To solve the problem of construction waste, a system could be developed on the lines of that for fertiliser, which tracks it from the source of manufacturing to the last mile. A similar IT-based monitoring system could be developed to mitigate this problem of construction waste. Modi’s new-found bonhomie with Sundar Pichai could be put to good use!

Private companies could be engaged to use mobile apps in combination with high resolution maps to upload the location and coordinates of these dumps. These violations may be sent to municipal authorities with a picture of the dump and location coordinates. The same location may also be passed on to a dump removal contractor designated to remove them. On real-time basis, a challan can be generated and issued to local municipal authorities, which would visit the site in the next 24 hours. Based on the challan, it would either recover the penalty or seal the premises. Moreover, when permission is given for the construction, advance money could be deposited that would be used to transport waste to the desired place, all to be monitored online. A comprehensive scheme can be worked out, where the role of municipal committee would be limited to enforcement and sharing of revenue.

A similar system can be devised for garbage removal also. Our civic bodies are still practising rudimentary systems of garbage collection, segregation and disposal. There is hardly a sign of mechanisation visible in any of these activities and logistics. Landfill with untreated garbage is still our best and most commonly practised way of garbage disposal. There are varieties of technologies, each one claiming to be better than the other — some producing power, some manure and some both. Yet we have hardly any successful demonstration of these technologies which are now globally tried and tested.
Sometimes it is difficult to understand: Is it lack of will power, funds or nexus — possibly all three — which is blocking these new technologies to come into practice. Every day, one comes across conferences being held in various parts of the country where global giants showcase their patented technologies from Spain, Italy or the US. They claim low emission and high power generation. The challenge, however, lies in logistics and economics. There need to be three independent agencies: one using IT for online mapping, second for logistics and disposal, and one for enforcement.

Under Modi’s leadership, awareness is being created but then comes the next step of making it a community movement involving the masses

 While visiting Colombia with an investment fund, a director in the commerce ministry traveled with me around the country. During one of the visits, while we were on a large agricultural farm, I tossed a banana skin into the soil. This young director immediately brought an empty plastic bag in which to put the banana skin. To overcome my embarrassment, I said it is bio-degradable. He very humbly said, “Not to worry. I will just dispose of it in the biodegradable dispenser on our next stop.”

There is a need to inculcate this kind of approach in each child, making it part of the school curriculum. Public schools do have some informal education and communication to this effect, wherein students are exposed to these values. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) audited the Swachh Bharat Mission and concluded that implementation of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is necessarily based on large-scale IEC (information, education and communication) campaigns to bring about behavioural change in the target population. Unless overall governance at the grassroot level improves, deployment of more resources may not have a significant impact.

 A survey was carried out by National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) for impact assessment of providing toilets in rural India. According to Saraswati Prasad, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G), which commissioned the survey, the findings in Uttar Pradesh showed lack of acceptability of toilets in remote rural areas. “Though several toilets have been built in this area, villagers still prefer going out into fields to attend nature’s call. At a few places, villagers have dumped piles of husk on the toilets. In some villages where they have constructed toilets, there is no proper waste management, so they are frustrated with the idea,” said a UP government official. A villager in Bareilly district of UP said he felt “suffocated inside an enclosed toilet” and couldn’t bring himself to excrete until he went to an open field.

Nonetheless, the Swachh Bharat Mission aims at attaining a 100 percent open defecation free India by 2019, for which it aims to construct 12 crore toilets in rural India by October 2019 at a projected cost of 1.96 lakh crore. The government provides an incentive amount 10,000-12,000 for an individual building a toilet. The campaign started with a lot of fanfare. Minister after minister announced plans and schemes but they soon lost steam as there was no media coverage. Under Modi’s leadership, awareness is being created but then comes the next step of making it a community movement involving masses. There needs to be all-round movement to sustain the momentum.

On the Delhi-Alwar highway, one suddenly finds a village Kithur standing out from the rest of the Aravali mountain ranges, always lush green with trees and dense forests. On quizzing the locals, it emerges that a couple of years back, all the villagers decided they would not allow animals to graze there, and will develop the greenery up the mountain. The results are there for everyone to see.

Similarly, there are a number of parks in Gurgaon, but Swarn Jayanti Park stands out for its beauty as one leader rose from the ranks and involved all the residents to contribute towards making it better than the rest. Thanks to the park, property rates here are now 20 percent higher. The challenge is to spot and support such leaders. He could be the area MLA or an administrator. Once the community is involved, there is no looking back.

The SwachhBharat Yatra has begun but it needs to reach the next destination!

The involvement of community and leaders who can spearhead this movement is of paramount importance. We have no dearth of leaders, only their energies need to channelised and they need to be steered in the right direction. The broom in Modi’s hands has created awareness. Now is the time to build on it to achieve the mission of a clean India by 2019.

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