When the President of India speaks, it is essentially viewed as a non-partisan, all encompassing, guiding voice of statesmanship that nudges the country onwards greater good. In the cacophony of rattle that dominates the discourse in the media, his is the voice that should stand for sanity, propriety and direction.
As an institution, his office reflects the over arching sentiment that should be the parameter of positive thinking in national life. It is for precisely this reason that a wrong note seems to have been struck in what is a completely right remark.
Speaking recently, the President pointed out that ‘the real dirt is within and not out on the streets.’ The context was a warped national sense of right and wrong, impatience and intolerance, and the first citizen connected it to the ongoing Swachh Bharat mission to illustrate his point. However, the comparison has the potential of taking the discourse on a totally different and unintentional tangent.
Let us see why it could be so, and how it can ultimately dilute the campaign for cleanliness, and consequently pull down tourism in the long run. At another forum, a few months earlier, the President had actually spoken up for sanitation at tourist places, adding that “inconsistent sanitation standards” would have a negative impact on tourism’ and asked all stakeholders to work together to achieve the goal of Clean India.
The cleanliness campaign in India has cynical commentators who dismiss it as an impossible dream. There are also those who seriously do not consider such an alarming problem to warrant the attention over ‘other, more pressing problems in the country’.
It is evident that the President does not support such views. On the contrary, he has always been encouraging the Clean India movement. Then why is it that his statement can cause concern.
For years, sanitation has been seen as a rich man’s sensitivity issue. The idea that the country’s poor have greater concerns than clean streets held sway over policymakers’ decisions in many subtle ways. In fact, I dwelt on this subject extensively in a just released book - ‘Break Free, Golden Bird’. The subtext of sanitation consciousness in India is very fragile and needs to be handled with care.
Oddly, the habit of dirtying the country has always been looked at by the citizens, not with a sense of disquiet, but even as a subject of amusement to a great extent. The initial campaigns for a Clean Incredible India reflected this in the design of the campaigns of awareness. The video advertisements of a little by peeing on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai or a portly woman throwing a banana peel out of her car appear to have a certain element of ‘cuteness’ or humour underlining it.
The Hindi advertisements appealing men to not be ‘Su Su Kumar’, and not pee on walls also had that blasé sense of fun in it. It is this non-seriousness that lies at the root of the obstacles in making India clean.
The right poetic message of ‘real dirt lying within and not on the streets’, firms up, in a subtle unintended manner, that dirty streets come second.
The message of cleanliness and sanitation has to be sent across in all seriousness and with all the force at the command of the authorities whose job it is to implement it.
The sight of India Gate at Delhi, the very heart of the capital, every evening after picnickers leave the grounds, reflects the same lack of seriousness. The mega religious processions in every city, the huge public gatherings leave behind a trail of rubbish and waste. Public attitudes reflect official apathy.
The beautiful Yamuna Expressway connecting Delhi and Agra has started showing signs of discarded plastic and garbage on the roadsides, and at the refreshment stops and rest rooms en route. A senior manager of the Yamuna Expressway Authority actually stated that people retort that since they have paid such a hefty toll tax, it is the expressway authority’s responsibility to clean up their mess and discarded paper plates.
Stating cleanliness comes second, even if to an ideal, somehow devaluates it, especially in the minds and attitudes of those who were as it is quite unwilling to follow it in the first place.
Especially since the President is the first citizen, his words are followed, molded and understood by a large percentage of citizens who have so far shown they can be quite callous.
The President is therefore wrong, though he might be right.(The author is a freelance writer based in Delhi and a regular contributor for TravelBiz Monitor)