A month back, the Prime Minister launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with a personal touch amidst much public fanfare. It is not a common sight to see a Head of State sweeping a public street with a broom. Even less common is it to see one such picking up and disposing the swept litter! Cynics will surely say tokenism but, against the background of his relentless exhortations to sanitation, that remains, for now, a shaky charge.

SBM differs from its earlier avatar NBA (Nirmal Bharat Abhyan) by having segregated divisions for Rural (Gramin) and Urban sanitation. The former falls under the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the latter under the Urban Development Ministry. The emphasis in both arms is on the building of toilets.

The new scheme has auspicious portents. The realization that community participation and outreach is critical to the success of  policy roll-out is one such. Both social media and the gov.in website (a platform for public participation in governance) record an uptick in community involvement. Indian television is carpet-bombed with informative and actionable ads slickly produced and fun to watch. One even calls for public shaming! Corporate India too is in on the action. Companies like TCS, Vedanta, Reckitt Benckiser and L&T have pledged upward of 100 crores each as CSR investment in rural and school sanitation and, industry body CII will now spearhead the construction of 10,000 toilets annually.

Urban sanitation has a Central allocation of 15,000 Crores to be disbursed over five years against an expected total cost of 62,000 Crores. The Centre also plans to utilize 7000 Crores (50%) to Solid Waste Management. For urban dwellers the attention to waste management is heartening but details are few on how the money will be spent or, on the accountability of the States who have the lion’s share of the responsibility.

Meanwhile, SBM was launched in the heart of the Capital with much exhortation of the public to participate in a cleaning drive. While so doing, we were asked to nominate tag teams (a la the Ice Bucket challenge) to keep the task of cleaning public spaces in continuous motion.

The bizarre took a turn for the worse when a dubious set of ‘celebrities’ – a group who, most likely, have never wielded a broom in their lives – were announced as the prime tag team, tagged by the Prime Minster himself. The announcement of this tag-game and its pretty players was an unnecessary and frivolous touch that instantly diminished the gravitas of the exercise. Imagine instead the impact of a team of Paurakarmikas (sanitation workers), on the stage with the PM, as recipients of a nationally televised commendation by him for their work. It is these people who are at the front lines of sanitation, who know the rigors of the exercise and, who will get the job done. Shining the spotlight on their work would have directed attention to sustainable outcomes. Instead, they watched from the side-lines as ‘celebrities’ basked in the counterfeited shine of welfare starlight.

Community participation however essential, is only a small step on the road to sanitation. More critically, community involvement has to be positioned closer to the last mile for interest to be sustained. The road to the last mile will have to be a lonely one that government travels. It is for government to invest heavily in the necessary infrastructure, in the gear for sanitation, before exhorting the public to cooperate. This seeming shift of focus is where SBM disappoints.

Let me illustrate the importance of gear with a personal story about urban sanitation. I was recently back home in Bangalore. Home there is in a relatively well maintained, largely residential, neighborhood in the northern suburbs. I have often been a member and initiator of neighborhood cleaning drives – each one of them failed primarily due to the impossible task of coordinating citizen action with the City Corporation. In my honest opinion and experience, blame for failure can be laid anywhere in the system, including citizen apathy, except with the much beleaguered Pourakarmikas. With the dual evils of an inefficient Corporation and a largely apathetic public, they are the only people soldiering every day to keep the city clean.  

If you crisscrossed our neighborhood you will not find a single garbage disposal area or bin. On the other hand, you will see, piles of garbage and leaves in street after street, in corners and in front of homes, in empty sites and abutting apartment blocks. The Corporation clears most of it in the morning but within no time, the garbage is back on and slowly piling upwards. That’s because there is no waste management system in place. A trip to the local temple necessitates walking past a mound of putrid garbage so high, I have often fled, in fear of swooning, straight into oncoming traffic. Confront the temple authorities to hear the same story of: how they have cleaned the area countless times but the Corporation does not institute a waste management system and, soon enough, everyone goes back to throwing garbage in that spot in no time.

Chennai does not have it half as good as Bangalore does. It is no surprise then that an Aunt has had the very same experience there as our temple. The area on the opposite side of her home in upmarket Adyar is leased by the government to a new age ashram. They do not maintain the premises and the surroundings have become a garbage disposal site. The family has personally cleaned the area at least five times in the past three years. In desperation, they have landscaped the pavement and planted trees and grass on the area. All to naught. Whoever was asked to cooperate turned aggressive on the old lady, the Corporation pleaded helplessness and things were back to the same mess in a week. The only job that the Corporation is efficient at, is to set fire to the garbage twice a month, in complete disregard of norms.  The air is filled with huge fumes of sickening odor, it is enough to make a young person take to bed. My aunt is in her seventies. In Bangalore or Chennai, nothing has changed on the ground.

I am sure every reader from India has similar experiences to relate and you will forgive, therefore, my angry frustration with what SBM is turning intoa big tent circus patronized by a tinsel obsessed media. How does a symbolic gesture of celebrity sweeping of the roads help sanitation!

·         60,000 crores/year – Combined (centre+state) allocation of Swachh Bharat Mission

·         69 million tonnes/ year – amount of urban garbage generated

·         6,000 tonnes/ day – amount of plastic left uncollected on the streets of our cities


What does the government need to do to enable us to invest in our own cities, communities and neighborhoods. Without wasting time reinventing the wheel, India and SBM must simply adopt Western models of urban sanitation and allow local enterprise to develop and deliver on the same.

A house cannot be cleaned without a broom, a dustpan and someplace to put the litter. Waste management and sanitation always fail on the last – a disposal system for litter. The list, collated below, emerges from countless hours wasted in grappling with solutions.  They are hard learned actionable points from the many failed attempts with the task of cleaning our neighborhood. Areas where government can spur participation with private enterprise are highlighted in blue.

The extraordinary mission of a Swachh Bharat is one that every Indian, across generations, has waited for. For long; much too very long. It is filled to the brim with great hope and is too important to fail. But, it will only taste success when the government is first armed with the political will to calculatedly invest in it for the long term. With the necessary infrastructure in place, the public will need little, if any, incentive to cooperate. After all who, in their right minds, does not want to have a clean and aesthetic environment to live in?

1.       Divide Waste Management into specific earmarked zones of operation – house, street, neighbourhood, ward and city

2.      Standardize garbage and commercial bags in higher grade recyclable plastic

3.      Outfit Paurakarmikas with a periodic supply of gloves , boots, dust aprons and masks. Incentivize their work. Coax neighbourhood associations to participate in incentivization programs for Paurakarmikas. Incentivize associations that deliver on citizen action and cooperation

4.      Mandate blue and green trash bins on the road outside each house or at the end of each road. Blue for recyclable waste and Green for wet and leaf waste. Tendered  dustbins to have a standardized design with sturdy body,  pedal operated lids and a sealable water outlet for cleaning

5.      Allot two tempo sized mini-trucks for each neighbourhood. Green tempo to clear the green dustbins. Blue tempo to clear the blue recyclable dustbins. Schedule collection on specific days and at specific times – preferably 4-6 AM to avoid traffic. Schedule pick-up frequency based on garbage production of each designated area

6.      Allot a separate truck for road/street-side waste. Wheelbarrows and small tempos to ride with the sweepers to collect the leaf/street-side waste

7.      Transfer to larger covered trucks in a ward collection facility

8.     Large clearly marked trash bins with standardized design to be deployed throughout the city. Distance between the dustbins to be no more than 100 feet. Each dustbin must be outfitted with a large plastic collection bag for easy and sanitary collection. Schedule frequent multi-hour pick-ups of city trash bins

9.      Transport to consolidated city collection centre. Collection centres to be equipped with Compactors for wet waste and Sorters for recyclable waste

10.  Load covered trucks with compacted waste to designated landfill