National

Enrolling Citizens For A Garbage-Free India

Private sector companies, especially start-ups, are being incentivised to get into the waste management business

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On October 1st of this year, a day before Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, an estimated 85 million Indians came together to clean up streets, lanes and public places for an hour. This event has been recognised as the largest simultaneous voluntary effort for sanitation worldwide and marked the culmination of the Swachhata Hi Seva (SHS) fortnight. This record-breaking voluntary shramdaan (physical effort) was India’s tribute to the father of the nation, who passionately advocated for sanitation as a priority even over political independence.

The call to action had once again come from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the tireless advocate of cleanliness and the pioneer of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) that began in 2014, more as a behaviour change movement, besides being the world’s largest sanitation plan.

Across villages and towns, more than 900,000 sites received attention, including parks and sanctuaries, markets, schools, hospitals, bus stands, railway stations, airports, temples, tourist attractions, pilgrimage centres and petrol pumps. Uttar Pradesh alone tackled over 100,000 areas for cleaning, while resident welfare associations led the charge in organising volunteer efforts at over 100,000 residential areas. Additionally, village communities adopted 35,000 anganwadis, and the cleaning operation covered 22,000 market areas, 10,000 water bodies and 7,000 bus stands and toll plazas.

With Modi leading with a broom in hand, a full range of political leadership, including Union ministers, chief ministers, members of Parliament, mayors and sarpanch, were out on the streets. Corporate bodies, civil society organisations, faith leaders, and volunteers, the National Cadet Corps (NCC), National Service Scheme (NSC) and Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) joined the efforts in full measure. All three wings of the armed forces picked up the cleaning equipment.

In the two weeks leading up to Mega Sunday, over 300 million citizens participated in various cleanliness activities. Uttarakhand organised garbage cleaning at 22 rivers and water bodies, including Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Mandakini, Ramganga, and Saryu. Uttara Kannada in Karnataka focused on community action to improve its natural heritage. Ramdurg used the swachhata (cleanliness) stimulus to restore its centuries-old fort. Bengaluru tackled the plastic menace by launching challenges such as ‘no straw for coconut water’ and ‘bring your own cup’. In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, students learn about waste management through exposure visits and special sessions.

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Telangana has witnessed a mega cleanliness drive that engaged lakhs of people. Northeastern states, which particularly value cleanliness, made the best use of the SHS fortnight. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi activated its Malba project for eco-friendly construction and demolition waste management.

The Swachh Bharat Mission is a call to action for people to take up sanitation as a service beyond government plans, funding, and technology. It is a movement aimed at freeing people from dirt and disease, invoking the human spirit and collective conscience of citizens. In the 2022 version of the world’s largest urban cleanliness survey, Swachh Survekshan, the tagline was “People First”.

The construction of 120 million toilets has significantly impacted the lives of India’s poor, marginalised and women despite the sustainability issues that communities and managers face. However, managing the 1.5 lakh tons of solid waste produced by 4,800 Indian cities each day, including 30,000 tons of debris and 95 lakh tons of plastic waste generated annually, and hazardous electronic, radioactive and biomedical waste, will require significant improvement in the current approach. To achieve Garbage-Free Cities (GFC) by 2026, waste management must be everyone’s responsibility. After all, source segregation exercises such as the Hara Geela Sukha Neela are individual choices, as opposed to random waste disposal and refraining from single-use plastic in everyday life. Waste managers warn that achieving GFC will remain a mirage without source segregation.

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Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is increasingly responding to the complexity. The private sector, especially start-ups, is being incentivised to get into the waste management business; innovative technology is being co-opted to deal with garbage piles. Recently, the ministry organised a Toycathon where waste was ploughed back into the creative enterprise of toy-making industry. Municipal solid waste is poised to become a viable industry, making the waste-to-wealth slogan a reality. Despite the significant supply-side intervention, SHS helps generate the most critical fuel: united resolve and sharp focus. It holds individuals responsible for sustaining the Swachh Bharat heritage and achieving wholesome and irreversible cleanliness.

It (Swachhata hi Seva initiative) holds individuals responsible for sustaining the Swachh Bharat heritage and achieving wholesome and irreversible cleanliness

Two initiatives in the SHS framework have been particularly noteworthy. One is the establishment of special camps to better integrate sanitation workers into schemes designed to ensure their safety, well-being and social protection.  The other is the India Swachhata League (ISL) in which cities, led by their youth, joined in a competition to clean beaches, hills, and tourist places.

More than half of India is poised to become urban in the foreseeable future. According to the government, more than Rs 18 lakh crore have been invested in transforming India’s cities and towns since 2014. But the job will not be complete without a clean and hygienic geography. This will necessitate the world’s largest waste management effort to get wedded to massive behaviour change. Eternal vigilance and engagement are the only way to arrive at a garbage-free India and sustain the same.

Akshay Rout is former director general, Swachh Bharat Mission.

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