In a bid to improve the India's image PM Narendra Modi recently kick-started a campaign to clean parks, public buildings and streets. A promising start, says sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak, but more needs to be done.
Pledging to sweep away his country's reputation for poor public hygiene and rudimentary sanitation, Indian PM Narendra Modi recently joined millions of schoolchildren, officials and ordinary people in a countrywide sanitation campaign.
The five-year long drive known as 'Clean India' was launched on October 2, the birthday of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Although the day is usually a public holiday, the South Asian nation's four million federal government staff and millions of schoolchildren spearheaded the campaign, taking up brooms and pledging to clean their offices, school premises and streets.
Modi has made public health one of his government's key priorities, promising that all schools will have separate toilets for boys and girls.
Some 594 million people in India - nearly 50 percent of country's population - defecate in the open, according to UNICEF.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the New Delhi-based Sulabh International Social Service Organization, says in a DW interview that while the campaign is a first step in the right direction, India also needs to make long-term sanitation efforts such as providing toilets to everyone and disposing of all garbage, if the goal of cleaning India is to be realized in the near future.
DW: What does Narendra Modi aim to achieve with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission?
Bindeshwar Pathak: The roots of the campaign go back to Mahatma Gandhi. When he was fighting for the freedom of this country, he had wanted to clean India first and achieve independence later on. But when Gandhi died, this focus was lost.
Although Indians maintain private cleanliness, it's a completely different story when it comes to public hygiene. People are quite used to throwing garbage on the streets and in other public places.
PM Modi therefore wants to change this attitude with the Clean India campaign, which has started very well. Modi's symbolic action to pick up a broom and spearhead the campaign has influenced the rest of the country.
How dire is the current sanitation problem in India, especially in the cities?
The situation is so bad that around 600 million people - around half the country's population - still defecate in the open. In some parts, the cleaning of human feces is still done by the "untouchables."
Public places in the country are very dirty and even government authorities, such as municipal bodies, are not serious about cleaning them. People throw garbage everywhere. It is therefore very important that these kinds of campaigns are maintained throughout the country.
What are the reasons behind India's problems with garbage, sanitation and lack of cleanliness?
There are several reasons. First, authorities in India have no priority for sanitation and second, local bodies don't have adequate financial resources to maintain cleanliness. Previously, there was an "octroi," a local tax, which used to be collected by local government and used for sanitation purposes.
But the Indian government abolished the tax and, as a result, local bodies lost that revenue which was only partly compensated. Local bodies in India are therefore not financially sound unless they are supported by both the central and state governments.
What will the latest sanitation campaign consist in?
The fact that PM Modi started by cleaning the streets himself has sent a message to everyone that public places should be kept clean and free of dirt. In the past, government officials were never in charge of cleanliness. But this campaign has led them to pick up brooms for the first time and clean their offices. Although authorities are not forced to clean, they are compelled to take part in it given that they see the prime minister himself doing so.
Do you think this campaign has the potential to truly tackle the sanitation challenges?
If it's only a campaign, then it will not last. The campaign must be backed by action. Authorities have to ensure public places are kept clean and that garbage is disposed of properly. They must make sure that people do not dump their garbage everywhere. There should also be increased focus on waste recycling.
Furthermore, more than 130 million Indian households lack access to toilets, a problem which is not only limited to houses, but also extends to schools. Many schools in India either don't have toilets or don't maintain them properly. So the challenge is on two fronts: providing toilets to schools and households, and educating people on their clean maintenance. It is therefore not just one or two actions, but a combination of all these activities which will make India clean.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is an Indian sociologist and founder of the New Delhi-based Sulabh International Social Service Organization, which works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management, and social reforms through education.