What is Swachh Bharat? How’s it going in the field truly? Is the government really delivering on this mission? We are bombarded with such questions every day whenever we are introduced as people working sanitation. The problem with that question is that it somehow places the whole issue external to the person asking the question – they are honest seekers of information, but at the same time that they are asking these questions disturbs me.
Here is why these questions make me somewhat unhappy. I am, what is somewhat jestingly called, a development professional…which makes people think of me as either the NGO-jhola (sling bag) type, or the white collar professional sitting in air-conditioned offices writing about development issues, strategies, or “romanticizing” poverty. Admit it – these are the two categories you have already put me in as you are reading this! I have to admit that I am somewhere in between. What is most compelling about my work is that it allows me to collect stories and experiences that heavily influence the work I do – to be an impatient optimist to bring change for the poorest and to spread equity with the underlying belief that all lives have equal value. … Hold on, I am getting to my point about why those questions disturb me. There are many stories I could tell to drive the point home, but let me start with a few…The first story is about one of my journeys when I was leading a trip to see programs “in the field”. As part of my preparatory work I had to spend the night in a village with some colleagues. We slept under the stars (the romance part) on charpoys (jute strung cots). We had been warned to stay close and not wander off at night, since the area was known to have snakes, scorpions and other wild creatures we wouldn’t necessarily want to encounter on our own – more because a bad encounter at night would also disturb my colleagues’ much needed sleep. But come 4:30 am, nature called, and I had to find a safe place to answer it – in pitch dark, scared of venomous creatures waiting to pounce- , and brave the bushes I could find – looking carefully over my shoulder that I wasn’t a tourist site for fellow villagers, colleagues. The story ended happily for me. I managed to find relief and came back quietly and laid down. Ah! the relief that the episode ended and that soon we would be on our way….but wait what about all the other people that shared my starry night? Where do they go in the morning, afternoon and night – every day, every night? How do they deal with this? And the answer is that they do what I did every day of their lives, looking / walking carefully for any creatures – animal, insect or man that might pounce on them and attack, ridicule and humiliate them while they answer the call of nature at not the most convenient times. So they plan what they eat, how much they eat and drink, regardless of what they should and how much they need to eat and drink to stay healthy. And they are attacked and humiliated….even if it’s a soft snigger as they walk past. So for them, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is late in coming…they have needed it for so long and they need it now. SBM is not a regular government delivery program ; it is not something we can be skeptical about; it is not also a research program; or a political agenda – it is life and death for them – more often than we would like to imagine.
The next story is about a group of women in Trichy – who work as sanitation motivators. They live in a slum, and didn’t have money /space to construct individual toilets. So, after years of scrambling around in the dark, seeking private places in an ever-crowded space to answer their biological need to urinate and defecate, and walking through the waste that others left outside their homes in the open spaces, they petitioned and got a community toilet built in the area. They now spend hours keeping it clean, being vigilant to keep their slum from becoming a place for people to use as a big open toilet, and looking after general repairs. It is now a part of their everyday life to worry about the community toilet – no broken windows, taps, doors….and often end up paying their own money to keep it going…till they are reimbursed from city budgets…..For them SBM is a key need to ensure that their toilets and that of so many of their fellow city dwellers are kept clean, usable and well maintained. It’s now their lifeline – literally…or else where will they go? Is SBM working for them?
The question really is – what have all of us l done to ensure that our cities allow Lakshmi and her brothers, sisters, children, parents in the slum to go freely to a safe, clean toilet when they want, eat what they want and spend time learning, earning and living healthy lives that we take for granted as the rhythm of our life? Can we help my village hosts imagine a world where safe sanitation is a matter of routine for everyone, everywhere?! Something they can take for granted the same way we do! Remember the desperation you feel when you have to wait in queue “to go” at the airport, during a large meeting – now imagine that desperation everyday….
Now let us imagine another reality – that all of us have access to a clean toilet, that the waste is safely collected and disposed and not dumped so that children diving into a natural body of water, are actually jumping into clean waters and NOT into all of our waste? That the water we drink is not tainted with our waste, and that fellow Indians who can’t access fancy RO filters, still get clean water….everyone, everywhere needs this basic facility – not just us….everyone!!
Because honestly, that is what SBM is! It’s not a government program. It’s not a political agenda. For Lakshmi, for my village colleagues, for the citizens in the country living in slums, it is the difference between life and death! Can we honestly sit back and watch this from the sidelines, externalize the issues and ask such inane questions as “Is SBM working?”. The question we should be asking is “How can we make this work? What can I do to ensure it works?” Shouldn’t we all be in the trenches – before we have no sidelines left to watch from? Join SBM –….be a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission. How? you ask? Be brave and stop someone from littering…organize community meetings and tell everyone who needs to know about the Mission. Read what the poor are entitled to and spread the word on their rights – to anyone you meet who you think would benefit from knowing about this. Meet your local politician and find out what she is doing to contribute to the mission and how you can help. Because no one person can create a Swachh Bharat – it has to become Mera Bharat Swacch – safe sanitation and a Clean India for me!!!
– Madhu Krishna is Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation