It is a shame we need a Prime Minister to tell us to clean up

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Bengaluru: India has, over the last few months, been fueled by euphoria, by hope, by the anticipation of great things to come. Last week, broom wielding evangelists set out of their homes to clean the roads.

They picked a section of the road or pavement and cleaned that, blind or oblivious to the pile of filth that lay across the street. And all this has me thinking, what does our nation really need? The streets are littered with piles of garbage and people look past them, thinking, “This is just plastic, it’s not dirt exactly.”

What we don’t realise is that a filthy city is born through the average litterbug. Cleaning India is about changing a mindset, not merely putting a broom in people’s hands.

Awareness is part of the programme, yes, but it won’t do. We need action plans, punishments that keep the rules in place and solutions that are actually implemented.

That said, I do appreciate what the Prime Minister has done he has brought cleanliness and sanitation to the political agenda. But, while calling on citizens’ engagement is one course of action, it will only take you so far.

Whether we’re looking at littering, solid waste management, or sewage treatment plans, a sustainable action plan is what we really need. We have called on PPPs for public toilets, for instance, but this has never materialised.

What we need to understand is problems breed problems. The lack of toilets leads to a host of other problems, especially for women. In rural India, kidney disorders are rampant because the women have no access to proper toilets.

They have to wait until dark to defecate in the fields, which gives rise to major safety concerns. Things do happen in this country, progress is made, but it requires a crisis.

Surat was a filthy city, but when the plague hit, it was cleaned up. People walk by piles of garbage without registering it, but if you tell them that it is the cause of Ebola, it will be cleaned in double quick time!

The enthusiasm generated by the Swachh Bharat campaign reminded me of when I first moved into my house in Koramangala in the 1980s.

Even back then, it was an affluent neighbourhood, but the streets were quite filthy, simply because people had grown accustomed to dumping their waste outside.

I got together with a few friends and we went on a door-to-door campaign, telling people that if they paid us a nominal sum every month, we would use that money to have waste collected by private parties.

We had more doors than we could count being slammed in our faces. All people had to say was, “The BBMP does it for free, why should we pay you?” And so, the mess remained.
Every time it rains, you have the roads flooded with a putrid mix of dirty rainwater and sewage.

Despite the government’s efforts to bring about a relevant solid waste management plan, you have apartment complexes throwing out huge amounts of unsegregated waste every day.

The government should simply stop issuing completion certificates to those complexes that don’t have a system to manage organic waste and make sewage treatment plans mandatory.

Things have been allowed to deteriorate for so long that a sort of immunity has set in amongst the people. Don’t we, as citizens, as human beings think cleanliness is important? We spit and urinate on the roads with a sense of entitlement, without thinking for a moment that what we’re doing is wrong.

If awareness is not enough to sustain progress, we should impose fines. And there should be no escaping it. If there is garbage outside your house, you face the consequences, even if a neighbour has done the dumping.

Policies are a necessity and they do get made. Then, we find ourselves facing another big challenge enforcement. Why is Singapore so clean? They have a $500 fine for littering, which is strictly enforced. In India, we need a plague or a ghastly rape case to spur us into action. That’s all we respond to crisis.

And it just won’t do. It’s a shame that we needed a Prime Minister to come forth and point out that the country needs cleaning, but it was the call of the moment nevertheless. Issues like hygiene need to be dealt with at the local level, because every city, every region has problems that are unique to it. The PM has set the stage and pointed us in the right direction.

Now, it’s up to us, the citizens, to act collectively. It’s not just about a symbolic event conducted once a year to pay tribute to somebody. What we need is a combination of regulations and solutions, coupled with punishments for the defaulters.

Cleanliness is important – our sense of dignity depends on it as much as our health and wellbeing. Unless we put our personal prejudices aside and get it together for the greater good, there’s very little we can achieve, so we might as well stop complaining about it.

The writer is Chairperson and MD, Biocon and the President of the Bangalore Political Action Committee.

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