By Vijay Darda | 06-10-2014
Prime minister Narendra Modi has a way of doing things that grabs attention. Whether it is his address on Teachers’ Day or his show at Madison Square or the launch of the Swachh Bharat mission on Gandhi Jayanti, Modi ensures that he has the eyeballs. Not a mean feat for a politician considering that the general public has been developing an aversion for them as a class. He can keep the message in the medium.
So, Swachh Bharat has caught the eyeballs. Celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Priyanka Chopra, and even a Congress MP Shashi Tharoor with his massive following on twitter will further help to keep the message in the public eye. Possibly, they would inspire millions to their bit, and the millions would respond with enthusiasm. But noble and laudable as it all will be, sadly it won’t even make the slightest of dent on India’s massive garbage problem.
This is a well-researched subject, and there is ample data available about the size of the problem and the massive resources that are needed to solve. We are often given the example of Singapore as a clean city state. Let us look at just one factoid: In the year 2000, Singapore built a waste-to-energy smoke free plant at the cost of 890 million dollars to generate 80 MW of energy. All well, but the amount of waste disposed of is just 3,000 tonnes per day. By comparison, urban India that accounts for 47 percent of garbage generates 1.3 lakh tonnes of waste per day. So, we too can do it, provided we find the resources for it. The lowly broom that became the VVIP symbol of commitment to clean India, can hardly achieve this goal. This would need billions of dollars of investment in state of the art technology to collect, segregate, and dispose of waste in an environment-friendly manner. Incineration of garbage is just one such route. Japan has done it, and its garbage disposal facilities have air-conditioned spaces for the people who man the systems. Can we make this transition? Can we develop this mindset, and put our money where our mouth is?
This indeed is the expectation from a macho Prime Minister. He has earned the people’s mandate largely because they believe that after his Gujarat track record he is the man who shall walk the talk. He shall deliver whatever he promises. So, he gets a cheer for bringing the Swachh Bharat mission to the fore, and we reserve the rest of our two cheers as we wait and watch expectantly for the next steps to unfold. The problem of garbage in India, however, is not just the solid waste, and there is the huge issue of sewage disposal as well. Besides, with Modi stressing on making toilets, the associated issue of sewage disposal at these places also comes up. It is well-known that the sewage disposal infrastructure is abysmal in most of urban habitats and this also requires massive investments. If the Modi government does have a plan of action for urban waste management, sewage disposal and the necessary resources to implement these in a time bound manner, it has not yet shared it with the people.
It is also heartening that the Prime Minister has linked the Swachh Bharat mission with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. It is equally encouraging that he has asserted that the clean India mission has got nothing to do with politics. But there is always a jarring disconnect between his pious intentions, and that of his followers in the BJP. So, the day he was asserting that it is not about politics, his BJP comrades were boasting that this “safai abhiyan will clean-up the Congress in Maharashtra and Haryana.” The elections are to be held later this month and the people would decide, but then this is surely not the Gandhian way of doing things.
It is a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness and the broad sweep of his thinking that a Prime Minister from even a party like BJP whose ideological parents have professed a line that is antagonistic to his philosophy can pick up a programme and appropriate him as an icon. This bowing at the altar of this great apostle of freedom, non-violence, communal harmony, truth and equality can quickly turn into a self-serving exercise, if there are compromises on the essential principles of the Gandhian ethos. It is much more than physical cleanliness.
Perhaps, there is a subtle recognition of this reality as for the first time in the last four months, the Prime Minister publicly accepted the contribution of all previous governments in this sector. So far, he had been loath to even concede the existence of these entities. There is no doubt that previous UPA government did accord priority to the sanitation mission, and the present allocations for this sector are being carried forward by the Modi government.
The Prime Minister has declared that he would be devoting two hours a week for this task, and he has also listed the positive economic fallouts of Swachh Bharat. But the proof of the pudding as they say would lie in whether he commits the necessary resources for the massive infrastructure that is needed to create a Swachh Bharat. Leaving it to the states or the corporate sector with little bits of help from the Centre would not be enough. All countries that have created a clean environment have not hesitated in making such heavy investments. They have not just invested in waste disposal projects, but also in clean energy projects.
Swachh Bharat is not just about cleanliness, it can also be an attractive opportunity for economic development as generating wealth from waste is a viable option. All our cities have millions of ragpickers, and this can become an employment opportunity for them, if the process gets organised and integrated with state of the art technologies. The 2019 goal of Swachh Bharat would not appear distant then, and we would all say three cheers. But till, then we have to wait and watch.