12/10/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What Are You Doing To Make Bharat Swachh?

Toilet in Leh/India
khandrola via Getty Images
Toilet in Leh/India

How Swachh is our Bharat? One year on Indians have more than twice as many cellphones as toilets.

After all the energetic celebrations and affirmations on Gandhi Jayanti, the dust has settled in thick heaps all around us. Yet it's important not to be cynical about the government's efforts to promote cleanliness and sanitation -- because this campaign can only work with a mass change in our obsolete mindsets.

When I walk down millionaire's row in the seaside town of Drobak outside Oslo where I live in summer, I see the owners of stately mansions and exclusive boats scrubbing their decks, cleaning cars, shovelling leaves from the driveway, conveying trash in top- of-the-line electric Teslas to the neighbourhood dump. They would be astonished to learn this was dirty work meant for underlings or lower caste people. How can ensuring cleanliness be dirty?

"Indians tend to be personally fastidious about hygiene but communally disgusting."

Yet, even educated and accomplished friends in India balk at the idea of cleaning their mess. Does cleaning your toilet make you an untouchable in a country where the concept was banned by the Constitution some 67 years ago?

I can't think who in my circle of friends actually clean their own homes and bathrooms. Instead, they spend hours cribbing about unreliable servants who don't do the job despite being paid so handsomely. Really? For less than a couple of hundred dollars you can get full-time help in India and if you throw in board and lodging you have someone at your beck and call whenever for whatever.

This is no longer possible in many cities in South East Asia and is becoming a rarity even in some fast-developing African countries... but then we have the world's largest number of poor according to the World Bank, and we continue to exploit them.

Beyond the unbeautiful, there is the unhealthy. As the Prime Minister warned at India Today's gala Safaigiri awards on 2 October, nearly 1000 children die every day, every single day, in India due to diseases born of filth. It's a staggering statistic in a country that takes pride in being the fastest growing in the world.

We pompously flout our scientific prowess when it comes to Mars but it doesn't hurt our self -image that the majority of our nationals, some 670 million, still defecate in the open. Isn't it staggering that this is not the number one development priority?

Cynics who sniff at the government's annual report card -- some 95 lakh toilets have been built in the past year according to Modi under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan -- have no idea how far behind India lags in sanitation.

In fact, according to the UN's think tank, the United Nations' University, more than half the Indian population owned cellphones in 2011 but only a third had access to proper toilets. The numbers haven't changed much today - except the number of cellphones in use in India is now 900 million, the second largest in the world after China. My plumber and carpenter have phones but no toilets.

One spin off of the public campaign being supported by Bollywood stars, sports heroes and other celebrities is that women, the true victims of insanitation, are beginning to discuss the unmentionable and demanding access to safe sanitation after a number of predatory attacks and serious health problems resulting from not being able to relieve themselves from dawn to dusk.

"Cynics who sniff at the government's annual report card -- some 95 lakh toilets have been built in the past year -- have no idea how far behind India lags in sanitation."

The 'No Toilet, No Bride' campaign launched by the Government of Haryana and supported by the World Bank, is quickly gaining traction as a recent newspaper report of a bride's refusal to honour her wedding vows because there was no loo in her in-laws' home, shows.

According to a World Bank study the low proportion of women to men in Haryana has increased their bargaining power when it comes to marriage. Ergo: more households with marriageable boys now have toilets -- up by 15% three years after the program started in 2005 -- than those without marriageable boys. Behaviours change when it's in your own interest.

Indians tend to be personally fastidious about hygiene but communally disgusting. How else can one explain the construction of the high-rise millennial city of Gurgaon without a properly planned garbage disposal system? Or that thousands of kilometers of railway lines across the sub-continent function as one big toilet?

Friends from the south argue that higher education has helped the south maintain better cleanliness standards than the north and statistics show that the northern states are particularly loo-deficient. The 2011 census shows that more than 90% of homes in Jharkhand have no toilets. The second and third positions are held by Madhya Pradesh (86%) and Chhattisgarh (85%). This is simply mind boggling.

And if arguments of child mortality, female health, the large toll of communicable diseases won't change your mind about cleaning your own mess and your neighbours', here are some more calculations linking cleanliness to prosperity. According to estimates, "If we fix sanitation in India, there can be a 7% hike in the per capita income of the country," said the doyen of India Today Aroon Purie at the awards function. "Good sanitation makes for good economics." The figure is computed no doubt from the amount of productivity lost to disease, stunting and mortality.

So it was heartening to see the new generation of clean warriors from across India receiving accolades for being "garbage guru", "toilet titan" and "water warrior" favourite? The guy who designed a Water ATM... you swipe your card and collect a litre of pure drinking water from the ATM. Now that's innovation. As the writer PJ O'Rourke said, "Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely."

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