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The Un-Swachh Truth: Many Indians Would Rather Use The Fields Than Clean A Toilet

06/04/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
VARANASI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 8: Prime Minister Narendra Modi using a shovel to clean Assi ghat on November 8, 2014 in Varanasi, India. Modi nominated nine persons, including chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, to carry forward the cleanliness drive in UP. After the prayers, Modi, who was accompanied by a few BJP leaders, picked up a spade and began vigorously digging the huge amount of silt that had deposited along the ghat after the rainy season. (Photo by Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The media has been full of pictures of various dignitaries wielding brooms and demonstrating their alignment with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan or Clean India Programme. However, the programme doesn't seem to have made a visible impact on the cleanliness of the country. For this initiative to succeed, I think we need to start cleaning our backyards.

I would like to describe a small attempt by our rural institute towards this effort.

I came back from the USA to Phaltan -- a small rural town in Maharashtra -- in September 1981 and joined the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) as Director. The first thing I noticed at NARI was filthy bathrooms. Luckily the Institute trustees had thoughtfully told the architect to put the toilet facilities a little distance away from the main building. Otherwise, it might have been difficult to work with the malodorous bathrooms just feet away.

I have a fetish for clean bathrooms -- a trait that I acquired when I was studying in the US. In the early stages of my education at the University of Florida I lived in a dorm called Reid Coop. This dorm was the cheapest on-campus housing facility and was generally populated by foreign students. One of the reasons it was cheap was because there were no janitorial services. All the students staying there were assigned the tasks of cleaning the hallways, common kitchen and common bathrooms.

"I circulated a small notice informing the staff that we would all take turns to clean the toilets. Immediately there was a revolt and the 20-25 staff members said that they were scientists and not sweepers! This type of behaviour in the land of Gandhiji seemed ironic to me."

Initially I revolted against the whole idea of cleaning a common bathroom, but once the inevitability of the task sank in, I took it as a challenge to do a thorough job. I was not competing with anybody or trying to show off, but developed a drive to see how clean I could make the bathrooms. Besides, this was also excellent physical exercise.

I continued this exercise even when I and my wife Nandini moved into married student housing. Cleaning the house and the bathroom was my responsibility.

So when I came back from the US and saw the filthy bathrooms at the institute I decided to do something about them.

As I mentioned earlier, Phaltan in 1981 was a small rural town, and our Institute was around 7km from it. In those days no person would come so far to clean the bathrooms or toilets. The Institute building was inaugurated in 1980 and it seemed since then the bathrooms had never been cleaned.

I circulated a small notice informing the staff that we would all take turns to clean the toilets. Immediately there was a revolt and the 20-25 staff members said that they were scientists and not sweepers! This type of behaviour in the land of Gandhiji seemed ironic to me. So this was my first real interaction with the NARI staff.

I told them that as a Director I would clean it and so they should do likewise but they did not budge.

So I sent a second circular telling them that only those staff members who cleaned the toilets would get to use it -the toilet key would only be shared between them. The rest, I suggested, could go to the fields. Only four staff members agreed to come on board and I showed them how to clean the toilets properly. The five of us continued to clean (and use) the toilet for almost two years before we could get somebody to come from the town to do the job regularly. For those two years, the rest of the staff did not mind going into the fields. Naturally the toilets were spick and span in that period!

However, an unintended outcome of this episode was that the word spread very fast that this new crazy director asks his employees to clean the bathroom. So people stopped applying for jobs!

I was therefore delighted when the present Prime Minister started the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. However, we need to think beyond constructing toilets. Our mindset needs to change before we can become a swachh and hygienic nation. Many of us have the attitude of "sahibs" and we believe that this type of work is below our dignity. Until and unless that changes we will remain a caste-ridden and not-so-swachh society.

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