Swacch Bharat: The Mahatma must be turning in his grave by PATRICIA MUKHIM


One wonders whether Indians as a category are a hygienic people. A cursory look around the capital cities of the seven states should tell us that we have no concept of cleanliness. The problem is also that what was is an essentially personal problem has been converted into a communitarian problem that has been outsourced to the Government. No doubt governments have an onus of finding ways and means to help the tax-paying citizens get rid of their garbage. But getting rid of garbage from peoples' homes is only part of the problem. Converting that garbage to manure or energy requires investment and creativity. We cannot import ideas from the more developed western countries to solve our desi problems. But that is what out governments are wont to do. We have suited and booted consultants from different metros, hanging around in our secretariats and proposing fantastic plans, which may seem good in theory but are duds in the real world.

No one has ever considered getting the people of the localities together to think together about garbage management. The importance of thinking together is that people will also know the extent of the problem and may perhaps reduce the amount of waste they generate. This would also mean addressing our collective consumerist habits. These are times when consumer goods come in packages that all need to be disposed off. The day the locality/government decides that it is going to charge every household by the weight it generates, believe me the quantum of garbage will reduce.

Now some might say that smart people will then begin to discard their garbage in areas beyond their locality which is what happens even today and we know these vulnerable areas too well. If citizens are given the responsibility to become whistle blowers for their localities, be sure they will find out who the violators are. The much talked about, "Polluter pays principle," somehow does not seem to work here. Otherwise, Uncle Chips, Lays and the plethora of packaged food producers would have been penalized so heavily that they would have closed shop by now. But isn't there a way by which citizens can handle this problem? Suppose localities and their respective municipalities decide to boycott all packaged goods where the plastic packaging is non-biodegradable? What would happen then? Is that not one way of making a start without being cynical?

Sikkim has made much headway by banning plastic carry bags but packaged food products are still sold in shops because companies want to cut costs and do not want to invest in bio-degradable packaging. But despite that Gangtok is a clean city and a model for all to follow. Alas! All that the visitors to Sikkim do is laud the Sikkim Governments initiatives but could not care less about starting such initiatives in their own cities. What is it that holds us Indians back from doing our bit to sustain this planet?

October 2, has come and gone. The Mahatma is revered yet again with meaningless platitudes and because October 2, this year was a Sunday the token cleaning drives in all localities including public spaces happened on October 1. This once in a year public cleaning drive is a travesty of everything that Gandhi stood for. It is pathetic to see public figures wielding the broom once a year when the rest of the year they are not bothered about the garbage they pass through in their respective localities. It's as if they are sanitized from the dirt and muck because they sit in their compact SUVs and drive across without seeing anything.

I recall visiting Darjeeling some time ago. There every person would clean not only his/her compound but also the road outside the house for at least a 200 meters radius. There is a certain bonhomie and a sense of ownership of the place they live in. This could well be replicated in areas with residents that have a common vision for cleanliness.

Come to think of it, Prime Minister Modi should have first thought through the whole problem of solid waste management in this country before aspiring for a cleaner Bharat or a Swacch Bharat. Solid waste today is our biggest nightmare. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) recently came up with a book, "Not in my backyard." This is a must read book for policy makers because it says that landfills are no longer a viable option especially for people residing in hills. The only way out is to create community-driven solid waste management units that are green and clean and do not emit methane. Science and technology today has progressed to a point where such techniques are available, albeit expensive. But this is an area other than health where the Government must invest maximum resources because unless we tackle this humungous challenge garbage is going to be our undoing.

It would be a good idea, if for starters, the PMO's office is bombarded with tweets asking it to ban packaged goods sold in non-biodegradable packages, particularly those lined with silvery-steel coating. The Prime Minister perhaps does not consume potato chips and does not realize the extent of the problem that this junk food creates both in terms of health problems for humans and also the health of the environment.

The new Solid Waste Management Act 2016, mandates the local committees to take ownership of garbage management and not to depend entirely totally on the Municipalities or Municipal Corporations. Many State Governments are yet to to enact their own solid waste management Acts by taking a cue from the above Central Act. Citizens too are unaware of the new Act and their personal responsibilities vis-à-vis solid waste management.

For now Swacch Bharat is a mere slogan that is unlikely to have a visible impact on this country of law breakers. Gandhi must be turning in his grave to see the filth that envelopes India today.

By Patricia Mukhim