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#SwachhBharat: Picking up the broom once a year is not enough

Samir Nazareth | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:16 IST

The aim

  • What\'s the aim of Swachh Bharat? Keeping India clean, or cutting the chance of making India dirty?
  • Increasing waste generation is bound to fail the Swachh Bharat campaign

The way

  • Indians must consume less, manage waste; manufacturers need to be responsible for products
  • Ragpickers should be involved in waste disposal plans
  • More in the story

As India is commemorating Mahatma Gandhi's Birthday, the BJP is sure to extol the success of the Swachh Bharat campaign launched last Gandhi Jayanti. After the inauguration of the campaign there was a lot of activity on social media and on the streets. The PM swept roads and dug out dirt, he invited others to enact similar photo-ops. The invitation was readily accepted.

One year on, streets are still dirty, municipal workers who clean streets have not been provided with proper equipment and safety gear, people still litter.

One needs to question the goal of the Swachh Bharat Campaign. Is it keeping India clean? Or is it reducing the potential to make India dirty? The two are incontrovertibly linked. Even with Modi's charisma, India cannot be kept clean if the potential to make India dirty is not first reduced.

If increasing waste generation is an indication of consumerism, it is also an indication of a major reason why the Swachh Bharat Campaign will fail to keep India clean. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates 115,000 tons solid waste per day and waste generation increases at 5% annually.

Sweeping this dirt under the carpet is not going to keep India clean. The only way the Clean India campaign will succeed is if India generates less waste and if citizens manage waste at source.

Generating Less Waste

Many of us have grown up with the 3Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle; there is now a fourth R - refuse. We need to say 'No' to packaging, disposable plastics and other one-time use items. The Swachh Bharat Campaign needs to get companies to take back their waste.

Producers of commodities are also producers of waste. Just as manufacturers are responsible for the quality of their product, they now have to be made responsible for the impact of their product and its packaging on the environment. If this is not done, 10 years from now we will still be accosted by photographs of plastic laden sewers, plastic bottles floating on our beaches, aluminium cans thrown carelessly in dark corners.

Community/Society Based Waste Management

The key to a Swachh Bharat is ensuring that the quantum of waste that leaves the house or any facility is reduced and that the waste that does leave is collected for recycling.

Households generate two major types of waste: wet waste, or biodegradable waste, and recyclable waste. There are other forms of waste like sanitary napkins, whose quantity is far less and is destined to the garbage dump. Waste such as electric bulbs need to be returned to the manufacturer to ensure that they are disposed of in a proper manner.

Biodegradable waste can be dealt with through composting within the household or within the community. Not much space is required for this effort and the compost that is generated from the process is in demand as an agricultural input. Segregation of waste into biodegradable and recyclable waste is necessary for such a system to succeed. Thus the need for the community to participate in dealing with the waste that they generate.

Households should manage the waste they generate; industries should take back what they produce

India has an informal waste management system that ensures that valuable resources are recycled and in this process they reduce the amount of waste that ultimately finds its way to the garbage dump. For their work, ragpickers, are harassed by civic authorities and police and are forced to work in hazardous and abysmal conditions. Society has continued to ignore the vital work done by the ragpickers.

Without the inclusion of ragpickers, the Swachh Bharat campaign will not make India clean.

There are examples of how communities and towns are managing waste in a way that is not only environmentally friendly but is also socially responsible. Kovalam is on its way to becoming a Zero-Waste tourist destination.

Pune has SWaCH - Solid Waste Collection and Handling - which claims to be India's first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers. Not only does it provide safe employment to ragpickers, but keeps the city clean too. There are similar stories from San Francisco, Europe, Philippines, Bali and other places.

The current Swachh Bharat campaign divides the country into waste producers and those who pick up after others. That is what the caste system was about. Democratic India makes us all responsible and empowers us to demand responsibility of others.

Swachh Bharat needs to be a composite of the informal waste collection sector, the waste producers and the government. There needs to be accountability and responsibility from waste generators. Unfortunately, the campaign appears to be just a composite of photo-ops. For meaningful sustainable results, it has to be based on sound environmental and social justice principles. Until then, India will pick up a broom annually.

First published: 2 October 2015, 7:44 IST
Samir Nazareth @samirwrites

Samir has been working in the development and environment field for over 15 years. With post graduate degrees in Development Economics and Psychology, Samir has also taught graduate students. He writes on travel, socio-economics and the environment for national and international publications and authored the recently published book 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People.