PM Narendra Modi is doing it, his ministers are doing it, Bollywood’s angry old men and dimpled and dimpling middle-aged heroes are doing it. In fact, all except those who are supposed to be doing it are doing it.
Ever since Modi launched his ‘Clean India’ campaign by sweeping a street in Delhi, every second well-known face and his uncle have been tumbling over themselves to flaunt an ‘idala’.
Delhi’s Aam Admi Party (party of the common man) was the first off the block. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal (who had spent most of his one-month term as Delhi’s elected chief minister not sweeping, but sleeping on sidewalks in protest of something or another) immediately headed for the dirtiest gutter, but not before inviting the media.
"As the Indian middle class swells, consumption and waste have grown alarmingly. India’s big cities alone generate more than 100 million tons of solid waste each year. "
Sporting opposition Congress wallahs like Shashi Tharoor too took up the challenge that Modi had craftily thrown at them. Tharoor rolled up his sleeves and got down and dirty in his home constituency in Kerala.
But given India’s enormous struggle with garbage, there will be a lot of sweeping to do.
As the Indian middle class swells, consumption and waste have grown alarmingly. India’s big cities alone generate more than 100 million tons of solid waste each year. Of course there are civic agencies. But each is replete with well-paid and slothful employees, snug in their life-long government jobs and well protected by unions. Successive governments have failed miserably in hauling them up. Coalitions have quaked in trepidation at the thought of invoking their wrath.
But the rot runs deeper; it is a non-philosophy that afflicts all of us Indians. We will keep our own gardens scrupulously clean. We will embellish our yards with rangoli, we will water our holy tulsi (basil) and lovingly nurture our sweet-smelling, flowering trees, day after day.
But where does our trash go? Easy, we just tip it over the compound wall. Try chastising someone, anywhere in India. “Does your father own the road?” will be the aggressive reaction.
We pay taxes for these public spaces, ergo they are ours to do as we please. We can litter, occupy the last inch of sidewalk space and park as we like. We can even spit and piss (but not kiss another column, another day) in public.
There are other factors too. As cities and industries grow, space for landfills located close to the sources of the polluting industries dotting urban centres has shrunk. So has the will to locate new ones. After all on the gigantic Indian subcontinent, a lack of space has never been an issue. But a plethora of complicated land-use laws, imperfect road connectivity and fuel costs have ensured that nobody seems in a hurry or prioritised the safe disposal of garbage at a distance from human habitats.
A 2000 Supreme Court directive to segregate waste, too, has been steadfastly and brazenly ignored.
The former government in Delhi (Congress), made one hasty and silly attempt largely for show, during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Impressive, colour-coded garbage bins were foisted upon Delhiwallahs, outside homes and along the streets. The minute the Games ended, our slothful municipal workers heaved a sigh of relief, removed the bins or allowed them to be stolen and went straight back to their old ways. A wheezing garbage truck continues to pass by once a day, carrying and dumping everything, be it toxic E-waste, organic vegetable peels or infectious hospital garbage on one of Delhi’s three gasping and stinking landfills.
In 2011, ambitious plans were made in several Indian cities to import machinery which converts garbage into energy. But impoverished waste sorters or ‘ragpickers’, who make their living by sorting out garbage in the landfills and are indeed the only hard-working people in the entire spectrum of garbage collection, opposed them as a threat to their livelihoods.
Experts now suggest that the only way out is to encourage public-private partnership for dealing with waste. But it is unlikely to happen at the same speed at which our garbage continues to pile up.
Take the Indian capital alone. Other than the spotless Lutyens Zone (no surprises; this is where the rich, the powerful and the political leaders live), a walk through any other residential colony or market in Delhi brings the Walrus and the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass to mind:
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
India is choked and is going to see its dreams suffocated by garbage if quick action is not taken. So the idea of Modi’s, ‘Clean India campaign’ is an excellent one. More so since its chief aim seems to be to change public thinking.
If any government can adopt draconian measures against unionized urban corporation workers and make sure they pull up their socks, it is the Modi Government, which faces no tugs in opposite directions from coalition partners.
Further, Modi’s BJP is growing in popularity and going from one victory to another at state elections.
But the Clean India campaign also runs the risk of trivialisation, ironically, at the hands of our leaders themselves.
Ever since the PM first wielded a broom, there has been a shameless and hilarious display of self-promotion by all politicians, even those of the BJP.
If the Congress worshiped its mascots, the Gandhi-Nehrus for six decades by naming every minor and major road, scheme and initiative after this, that or the other member of the family, displaying portraits of all of them at the head of advertisements and billboards like they were the Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, India’s politicians are now ensuring that not a leaf is raked, without their own pictures leading the story.
Last week, news photographers out early, caught sight of government employees hastily overturning bins full of old leaves and plastic cups on to perfectly spotless roads in Lutyens Delhi. Next, they carefully strewed them around, just so, so that an untidy and dirty street was born.
As the sun rose, limousines drew up and out stepped politicians in new track shoes and sportswear stretched over many a paunch. A whiff of expensive French perfume followed, as woman politicians arrived, dressed in casual-chic, khadi couture and gigantic sunglasses, not a hair out of place.
It was no coincidence that OB vans and gaggles of photographers were already in place. After cameras had positioned themselves around the “garbage”, fawning assistants to the ministers brought out spanking new brooms, quite unlike the straggly, witches’ mounts used occasionally by municipal workers.
Beaming from ear-to-ear, our elected representatives then flicked the ‘garbage’ gingerly, even as the cameras whirred.
When it was time to put the ‘waste’ into bins, shiny new buckets were produced, into which the peons -- to spare their masters’ hands from being sullied -- dumped the ‘garbage’ themselves. Several royal waves later, our leaders glided away again. They had done their bit -- albeit for a few seconds -- for the Clean India campaign.
If Mr. Modi wants his campaign to be taken seriously and not become the butt of derision, he will have to do more than just pull up urban cleaners’ unions. He will have to stop his ministers from using every initiative he announces as an opportunity for self-aggrandisement.
Otherwise, and much like the Commonwealth Games, a good campaign will end up as the biggest joke of the year.