Power of Gandhi The Sanitation Movement in India and its Global Impact

Spotlight By Soumit Mishra*

Power of Gandhi The Sanitation Movement in India and its Global Impact

From 29th September to 2nd October this year, India was host to Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention (MGISC) which saw participation of Ministers of Sanitation from over 50 countries, Heads of International Organisations, including the Secretary General of the UN, along with various experts from the field of Sanitation. The event concluded on the 149th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi with a soulful rendition of Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan “Vaishnava Jana” performed by artists from over 40 countries.

India’s tryst with sanitation precedes its existence as an independent nation-state. Millennia old practice of caste-system in the society had meant that sanitation was a tabooed subject. It is often said that to solve a problem, first we need to accept that the problem exists. The issue of poor sanitation especially at a community-level was always a pan-India concern but one that was never at the forefront till Mahatma Gandhi made it into one of his pet issues and exerted it into the national consciousness.

Gandhi and Sanitation:

Sanitation and hygiene were more important according to Gandhi than even political independence. Since very early in his political career, he had decided to make Cleanliness and Sanitation a national issue. In “Satyagraha in South Africa”, he talks about the filthy way in which the Asiatic people live in South Africa and why personal and civic cleanliness must be of utmost priority. Throughout his career, he made concerted efforts to edify the masses about the virtues and the utter need of sanitation and hygiene at a personal and community level. In Navajivan, a weekly newspaper published by Gandhi, he talked about the importance of Sanitation regularly and at length. In the November 1919 issue, he wrote about the close relationship about good health and cleanliness, and deals with the chronic Indian vice of spitting on the streets. On 24 May 1925, he wrote about maintaining cleanliness in lavatories, “I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West. I believe that many rules about cleanliness in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East…The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. I, therefore, believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature...” Gandhi was an extremely religious person and when he went to attend the Kumbh Mela in 1915, he was appalled at the insanitary condition of river Ganga. He wrote, “Thoughtless ignorant men and women use for natural functions the sacred banks of the river where they are supposed to sit in quiet contemplation and find God. They violate religion, science and the laws of sanitation.” Gandhi’s Ideal Village wasn’t just a self-reliant village but one with perfect sanitation. He felt that our villages were in a grody condition because we had alienated physical labour and intelligence and there was an urgent need for de-alienation. Scavenging has always had caste overtones in Indian society. But Gandhi wrote, “Scavenging is a fine art. Not only must the cleaning be perfect, but the manner of doing it and the instruments used, must be clean and not revolting to one’s sanitary sense, Scavenger who works in his service shares equal distinction with a king who uses his gifts in His name and as mere trustee.” Gandhi’s political and economic views were very much a reflection of his views on social and moral issues. Sanitation for him was very much an issue which would define the future of independent India. And even 70 years since his death, sanitation still remains as important to the future of modern India.

Swachh Bharat Mission: A Gandhian Dream and a Global Archetype

On 15th August 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking from Red Fort invoked the Gandhian dream of Swachh Bharat. The Government of India launched Swachh Bharat Mission on 2nd October 2014 with the goal of eliminating Open-Defecation from India and ushering a new standard of sanitation across the country by 2nd October 2019, the 150th Birth Anniversary of the Mahatma. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) aims to construct over 100 Million individual household latrines in just 5 years and ensure accessibility of safe sanitation facility for every citizen of India.

India has had state-run sanitation programs since 1986 when the Community Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) was launched. This was followed by Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 2001, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in 2012 and finally SBM in 2014 with each iteration being an improvement over its predecessor. When SBM was launched 4 years back, the sanitation coverage was mere 38 percent, an increase of just over One percent per year since 1986. The government knew that the approach has to be radically different if SBM is to succeed and achieve the ambitious target of 100 percent sanitation coverage within the strict time-frame of 5 years. Open defecation is a socio-cultural issue in India and if it were to be eliminated, mere construction of toilet wasn’t going to suffice. Defecating in the open is a deeply entrenched habit of millions of people across India and if that behaviour could be altered, then Gandhi’s dream of perfect sanitation could be attained. Hence, SBM became the biggest experiment in Social Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) in the world. The Gandhian philosophy of community-led approach towards resolving social issues and SBCC have become two of the defining components of SBM. Swachhagrahis (foot soldiers) have been engaged across the 6 Lakh villages in India who are spreading the message of sustainable sanitation. Women and Children have become change agents. The program has not just focussed on toilet construction but on sustainable sanitation, solid and liquid waste management, menstrual hygiene management, and public health. Social issues like gender equality, rights for specially-abled persons, and education of girl child have been at the forefront. Rural Sanitary Marts are creating opportunities of social entrepreneurship for thousands of Women Self-Help Groups (SHG). It is often an idea that leads to a revolution and the sanitation revolution in India has been centred around the basic idea of “empowering people to bring a positive change in their own lives and for their community.” The underlying goal was to metamorphose a government program into a People’s Movement. This has led to unprecedented success for SBM in the last four years. The sanitation coverage across the country has shot up from 38 percent in 2014 to over 90 percent in 2018. The usage rates of these toilets, as corroborated by independent agencies has been over 90 percent as well.

The United Nations in 2015 came up with Resolution 70/1 which defined the “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, a set of 17 targets encompassing major social and economic development issues that have to be met by 2030. Goal 6 of SDG talks about access to Clean Water and Sanitation for all. In 2014, India housed more than half the world’s population defecating in the open. Four years hence, the situation has changed remarkably. If the pace of progress remains constant, India will achieve one of the major targets of the SDGs, a decade before the deadline. In a country where every person has a notoriously different definition of time then his neighbour, achieving a target before deadline is an indubitable sign of progress.

Safe sanitation facilities with solid and liquid waste management is related to atleast 14 other SDGs. There are still millions of people in India, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with lack of proper access to sanitation and other basic necessities. Welfare programs in India and across the world have been mired by leakages and lack of transparency. But in case of SBM, the government has strived to bring together all the stake-holders through approaches like Rural Sanitary Marts, Social Entrepreneurship Models, Hackathons, Crowdsourcing activities, CSR etc. to ensure the success of the program. There have been other countries where sanitations programs have achieved success but when it succeeds in India it gives hope to a lot of people across the world who aren’t fortunate enough with endowments. In India, oft a messy democracy, more than 50% of the population still lives below $2 a day, struggling to meet their quotidian needs and the state-run programs have a reputation of flagrantly floundering. But the success of SBM could set a new benchmark and lead to a paradigm shift in approaches of governments towards other socio-economic issues. India could play a cardinal role in defining the success of Agenda 2030.

Gandhi: An exercise in Soft Power

India has been a superpower in the making for decades now. It is one of the fastest growing economies with a substantial military might but it also has a copious set of socio-cultural and economic concerns. If India were to truly realise her position as a global leader, it will have to exercise its soft power in a firmer way. Soft power, a term coined by Harvard Academician Joseph Nye, is the power of attraction, one that India offers in abundance. It is a millennia old land which has harboured all the religions of the world, been a canvas for all the artists, a stage for all the performers, a question for all the philosophers and an inspiration for all the writers. It is a land of stories and Gandhi has been, perhaps, its greatest story-teller.

Gandhi has been India’s biggest export since independence. The two pillars of Gandhian Principles, Truth and Non-Violence have inspired great leaders across the world from the likes of Martin Kuther King Jr, to Nelson Madela to Aung San Su Kyi to take up moral fights and lead their countries towards a better future. Gandhi’s insistence on self-reliance inspired people like Abdul Hameid to lay the foundations of Pharma industry in India through Cipla. Today, India is the world-leader in manufacture of generic drugs which has been a boon for the poor across the world and have ushered in an era of improved life-expectancy in some of the poorest parts of the world. The Gandhian principle of decentralization of political power led to the creation of Panchayati Raj Institutions in India and its success is an illustration of the power of participatory democracy. The Swachh Bharat Mission, a program envisaged on the ideals of Gandhi, and one implemented with a Gandhian approach emblematizes the new way of implementation of social welfare schemes across the world. The success of the sanitation revolution in India is a tribute to the Gandhian approach towards problem-solving.

As India celebrates 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi, the International Sanitation Convention from 29th September to 2nd October 2018 showed the indelible mark Gandhi has left in this world. The proliferation of Gandhian philosophy in all walks of life from academia to media to politics to music across the world is the greatest exercise in India’s Soft Power and perhaps the route towards becoming a Superpower.

• https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/cleanliness-next-to-godliness.html
• https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/the-mahatmas-superpower.html
• https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/gandhian-thoughts-about-cleanliness.html
• http://www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/gandhiphilosophy/

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