Dr. Faiza Abbasi
Aligarh, 4 October 2015
One of the demographic dividends of the generation of Indians contributing to nation building is that Mahatma Gandhi is imprinted on our psyche. As the familiar hand drawn picture of the simple yet strong Father of the Nation was seen everywhere from currency notes to the

school corridor his ideals too were imprinted through didactic tales. Like we don’t remember when we first learnt our parents names and faces, we also don’t remember when we first learnt of the truth and non-violence theory of Bapu. He was just there. Everywhere Loved and revered. Also he shared this cult status with no other icon of modern India pre-globalisation. Pandit Nehru was the closest but probably as the first PM he himself practiced caution not to be projected more than his beloved Gandhi ji.

From the simple school boy stories that we learnt about Bapu, we also perceive him as a man with integrity, honesty and austerity that translated in to his model of nationalism crystallising in a movement against the British rule until independence was won in 1947. However, down the line development and politics succumbed to their compulsions. A passive submission to these began in the early years and till date we see honest officers being humiliated by corrupt politicians and leaders with integrity turning a Nelsons’ Eye to corruption below them. Even Prime Ministers are not an exception to this tendency of letting the guilty go un-punished if they bring in political benefits.

Gandhi’s vehement refusal to all offers of luxury and a conscious abandonment of even self earned opportunities of cushy life, nevertheless, were meant to be a part of his exceptional integrity. He felt responsible to the masses, to their natural modes of subsistence and to the indigenous life supported at the grassroots. That is why he never shunned prudence of resources. He could go to the Round Table Conference in London in his two pieces of cloth wrapped around him and his cold feet in chappals. He was a living miracle to the British in layers of woollens and snow boots. It was unfathomable, where he got his steely resolve from to walk on a snow covered London Street without a coat, overcoat, hat and shoes and socks and mufflers and mittens. Feeling one with the poor and downtrodden of India and keeping himself sensitive to their deprivations and pains gave him this drive.

Unfortunately, after him successive governments were overtaken by the development fever imported from the west. This caused a two pronged socio-ecological degradation like never before. On the one hand the masses were marginalised and deprived from benefitting from the fruits of development. Mass production usurped the idea of production by the masses as in Bapu’s dreams and cottage industries were wiped by MNCs. On the other hand ill conceived and reckless development policies took our natural resources for granted and caused huge vandalism in our serene country landscapes, rendered the cities into brown islands of heat and gave birth to the growing monster of solid waste with serious disposal issues.

Being the environmentalist that I am who gets great strength from the Gandhian philosophy that ‘There is room for every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed’, it was a proud moment for me to take the Pledge on Swachhta this Gandhi Jayanti. Since 2014 all educational institutions have been mandated to administer the oath for keeping their surroundings clean. Rightly, in the oath the subjects are made to repeat that they will put 2 hours a week of shramdan, cleaning their neighbourhood, homes and places of work. Such attention to cleanliness by every government official, school teacher and all students, most certainly is an enabler of cleanliness. Albeit, any research would opine that a social change as massive and collective as the Swachh Bharat Mission can never be achieved by pressing and focussing on one enabler alone. A model for the accomplishment of this success should be replete with at least two or three more social enablers. In this essay I will enumerate three, as at it is the best that comes to my mind at this point of time. More are welcome on this space.

Equal Participation

While apparently the entire purpose behind the exercise of administering the pledge on Gandhi Jayanti, is to make the common man feel responsible for cleanliness and hygiene and not just wait for the government, a mere reading of the pledge indicates that it reeks of discrimination and dogma. When the United Nations clubbed all its philanthropic programmes for women under Unifem, one of the ethics to be promoted the world over was the use of a gender neutral language. I took this pledge in Hindi repeating a male head of institution but cringed every time I had to read …..saaf karunga, from the text. I upheld my pride in being a woman by speaking out aloud ….saaf karungi! Secondly, for all my love and allegiance to the nation I cannot concede to call it Maan Bharati or Bhaarat Mata. Now some ruling party politician may ask me to go to Pakistan if I don’t. While I will not cut my umbilical ties from India in the most Utopian of dreams, I am alienated to this pledge at least. To the loss of those whose brain child it is, the preached supporter of the campaign in me is feeling this way because of representing the second grade sex and the minority community. Though, keeping the cause dearer, I still have the Swachh Bharat Mission logo with Bapu in his simple Ainak on my letter head.


So there are many who are sporting the logo, spending on advertisements and buying new Jhadoos on Gandhi Jayanti but for real cleanliness they have to endure with dirt under nails and sweat with the Jhadoo and mop and duster and scrubber long after the cameras are gone. This noble mission has to look beyond the symbolism and photo-op for government officials. There are other existing institutional spaces where it can be effectively delivered, but they are all very un-glamorous. Those committed to the mission need to be ready for hard dogged work in the heat and dust of India. Campaign and advocacy for the goal is one thing – and I must congratulate the government on its success in the same, but the means that require grappling with filth burdened gullies, nallahs, and mohallas need to be promoted too. At this many would conveniently take the high road in AC cars. Alas, the higher road was taken by Gandhi ji, when he cleaned his own environs in the Sabarmati Ashram.

Socio-ecological systems

Motivated people will take the mission only half its way. Filth has to be taken to the end of the cycle, not just shifted from micro-environment. Stake holders should be educated enough to sort their garbage and not put it in front of other’s houses. The complete over hauling of the municipal systems, equipping the lack lustre municipal staff with modern gadgets and building capacity in them to administer a scientifically proven waste disposal mechanism is what we need before we ask people to pick up the Jhadoos. The green-yellow-blue florescent bins of poly vinyl chloride look very promising on TV in the back drop of the PM. What is further required is their access to the nooks and corners of the country. Correct measures of use like convincing the safaiwalas that the days of the old asbestos drum colored with cheap paint are over and the new PVC bins need to be emptied regularly. As those days are over, so should be the practice of setting fire to the trash inside the bin to save the hard work in cleaning them.

Sadly, India is yet to have a mature and sound recycling system which doesn’t let a blade of plastic escape on the streets. And the campaign ideals seem to be taking little notice of this fact while being overhyped in reaching to the electorate with the hollow message. As we inspire the people to throw away their garbage sensibly, we also need to inspire our industrialists to take the classified degradable and non degradable waste as raw material for production and energy generation. Specially, plastic and polythene, because it not only causes pollution, degrades soil quality and is detrimental to a feral animal’s life when part of its dietary spectrum. If left to perish on its own in millions of years plastic waste is a wastage of otherwise energy rich organic mass which can lead to sustainable development.

Before summing up, I feel compelled to quote – with slight alteration, the famous couplet of Bollywood lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, with special reference to my last point regarding the holy cows ingesting polythene and dying of starvation as it clogs their inards:

Yeh jashn Mubarak, par yeh bhi sadaqat hai
Hum log haqeeqat ke ehsas se aari hain
Gandhi ho ke Gaaye ho
Hum donon ke qatil hain donon ke pujari hain

(Enjoy the festivities but it is fact, that we are negligent of the feeling of truth, be it Gandhi or the cow, we are murderers of both, we are worshippers of both)