Sustaining the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan; through Awareness and Participation

Authored by CPR researchers Nikhil George and Amandeep Singh, this entry was first published in The Pioneer on Friday, 23 January 2015 and can be accessed here

After taking oath as the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi’s most visible domestic initiative has arguably been the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. On paper, the programme appears to be a re-packaged toilet construction and solid waste management exercise, but Mr Modi has been successful in prioritising the programme through repeated references of its importance.

In a departure from the past, through initiatives like the Swachchta pledge and the enlisting of India’s cultural and business elite to take up the broom, Mr Modi has solicited widespread participation towards a Swachch Bharat. But to convert this momentum to substantive change in how Indian cities and towns handle waste, it is imperative to dramatically increase citizen awareness and participation.

Decisions on collection and treatment of waste and waste-water are often made at the community level or at the city level. Awareness on the subject would allow us to be not just informed participants in this decision-making process but also help give a more equal consideration to interests that may not seem to align with our own.

Remember, in India domestically produced waste is a source of conflict as well as encourages inhuman practices like manual scavenging. India cannot afford to be casual about waste. If we are serious, aside from taking relatively painless steps like sweeping the road once a year, we need to become aware how our waste is collected, where it goes, what its impact is on public health and the environment, and to what extent technology can be a solution.

It is critical that we make a distinctive change in the way we handle our solid waste and municipal waste-water. Apart from the direct adverse impact on public health, domestic wastewater is today the single largest cause of surface water pollution. Waste dumping yards pollute air, soil and groundwater, and have across the country become sites of conflict between citizens who live close to the dumps and the municipal bodies who manage them.

If the current situation continues unabated, 10 years from now Indian cities and towns will contribute 50 per cent more waste to these sites than they do today. Better management of domestically produced waste and waste-water needs a more robust institutional framework including much improved working conditions for those employed in the sector. But the critical enabling factor for the success of the programme involves every citizen adopting responsible practices regarding his or her own waste.

It has been surprising to see views in print that places the responsibility for poor waste management on local bodies through arguments like ‘if India’s homes are clean, then why are its cities dirty?’ Any successful waste management programme begins with the individual.

Before it can be treated and disposed or reused, waste must be collected, and no Indian city can afford to employ enough waste collectors to make up for irresponsible disposal of waste strewn across public roads, water bodies and desolate private plots of land, or enough police to prevent it from happening.

Awareness must also focus on improving our understanding of the lifecycle of waste, the current systems used for handling waste (and wastewater) and their limitations. In large cities practices like doorstep waste collection and the sewer system have helped distance users from waste and waste-water generated by society on a daily basis — a flush and forget culture.

This distance has led some to suggest that with enough ‘technology’ and ‘capital’ we can build systems that wondrously collect all the nation’s waste and reduce it to harmless components. It is true that we need our engineering institutions to work on more efficient and appropriate solutions for processing solid waste and waste-water. But basic awareness of the waste lifecycle and the techniques of processing it would help us realise that any technological solution, however advanced, would still require us — waste producers — to adopt responsible practices.

Segregated living and self-contained housing has contributed to our lack of awareness on waste and pushed it down to a lower political and social priority. Prime Minister Modi’s effort has brought the conversation on waste to the forefront. Unlike the Mars Orbiter Mission, which was achieved through the focused work of a few thousand engineers, the success of a programme like Swachch Bharat Abhiyan requires the participation of every Indian citizen.

India needs its political and social leaders to develop a better understanding of domestic waste so that they can lead efforts to improve awareness and participation. Unless this happens, Swachch Bharat Abhiyan an initiative that has begun with promise, will be reduced to an also-ran Government programme.

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