Rituals of cleanliness

Governance as an art form and as a science usually levitates into pomposity of technocratic words. One smells the rituals of decision-making, the power of timetables. Governance smacks of science and expertise, planning and forecasting. The power of the Modi regime in recent times has to go beyond these words into a virtuous simplicity. Narendra Modi picked two simple words — punctuality and cleanliness — and made them the fulcrum of his programmes. Punctuality as a virtue was more focused on government departments. The emphasis was on the time of delivery, the time of policy. If clerks were supposed to be punctual, cleanliness was seen as a part of citizenship. These rituals of cleanliness and sanitation have, despite some suspicions, caught the imagination of the people.

“Operation Cleanup”, if one can call it that, is not about ethnic cleansing or eliminating the Naxals. It emphasises the simplest of civic virtues and seeks to generalise it. In doing so,
Mr Modi was in a way invoking the Swadeshi Movement where honesty and integrity were similarly emphasised.
The cleanliness project has to be seen in details. In a more publicised way, Mr Modi emphasised that every girl child would be entitled to a toilet at school. By any standards this is a major goal. Toilets and the mid-day meals scheme can go a long way in solving sanitation, hygiene and malnutrition among children. The danger here is not immediate enthusiasm. Cleanliness as a virtue must become all pervasive. To say that corporate social responsibility will be focused on toilets is not enough. Entitlements cannot depend on fashions. CSR has to be embedded in a bigger vision. Building toilets is one thing, maintaining them is another. One needs a Sulabh-like movement to sustain it.

Secondly, cleanliness needs a thesaurus of virtues like hygiene, sanitation. We need sanitation which does not sanitise the environment. We need mentalities that go with it. Indians have a peculiar attitude to waste. They love dumping it in other backyards. Secondly, as sociologist Patrick Geddes pointed out in his studies of the city, our cosmologies developed before we worked out the civics of human waste. Cleanliness demands a revolution in attitudes. Every time one passes a urinal, one senses people prefer to pee outside it. Urinals become major sources of civic contamination.

Cleanliness is also a sense of ecology. Years ago, historian Dharampal insisted that governance begins when every city cleans its rivers and then its local drains. Mr Modi’s Ganga project is a grander version of this but cleaning the Ganga has come up with issues about the categories of thought underlying cleanliness. Anthropologists in their studies show that purity and cleanliness centre around words like swachchhta as opposed to pradushan. Snan and swachchhta are seen as cleanliness rituals, while pradushan is read indifferently, as the government’s abilities to clean pollution.

The first indicated personal commitment, the second signalled public indifference to government projects. The Modi government needs to create cleanliness programmes which are sensitive to cosmology, to personal hygiene, to public spaces. Otherwise the plan to clean the Ganga will not work. There is another danger. The sacred has to be separated from the technocratic, managerial form of decision-making. To link the Ganga project to the interlinking of rivers makes one wonder whether the Ganga project is dedicated to traditional ideas of cleanliness or to more gigantic projects which have ecological implications

Critics have also pointed out that “Operation Cleanup” does not have to sanitise history. It is well-known that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party have always been ambivalent about Mahatma Gandhi. “Operation Cleanup” cannot be used to turn Gandhi into a minor god of sanitation. Gandhi was a more complex, creative and subversive figure. Cleanliness, BJP style, is merely civics. For Gandhi, food, weaving, walking, health were simultaneously ethical and political.

Mr Modi’s project has more of these connectivities. It must be careful about overdoing and overplaying Gandhi.

Projects like “Operation Cleanup” should not become rituals where politicians and VIPs wield the broom for a day. To be a part of civic virtue, cleanliness needs an embeddedness in ritual life, in public spaces. One does not see this. We have yet to see efforts where spitting paan or chewing gum is penalised. Till our society internalises it, cleanliness violations, like traffic violations, will need to be policed. People will not be clean merely for the prospect of cleanliness. The incentive and the deterrent have to be woven together. One sees little of those imaginations at work.

There are deeper issues because cleanliness is tied to ideas of dirt and waste, which are both parts of the informal economy. Scavengers and kabadiwalas have major roles to play and yet the civic imagination has little place for them. It is as if they are not yet citizens of this world of governance. Cleanliness as a virtue seems to be separate from corruption as a form of uncleanness. Civics as virtue and corruption as immortality have been separated out by Modi government.

Mr Clean in the Congress government referred to someone who was not corrupt. Rajiv Gandhi carried the sobriquet for years. Oddly Mr Clean in the Modi era sounds like someone from a Surf advertisement. Hygiene, sanitation has been quietly separated from morality in the BJP’s theory of governance.

In terms of a wider connectivity, ecology and cleanliness have also been separated. The BJP’s hurried clearance of environmental projects speaks of ecology as separate from sanitation and hygiene. In fact, while cleanliness projects have been touted, environmentalists are being disempowered. This does not make any sense within any contemporary policy framework. There is an odd attempt to isolate cleanliness from theories of health, ecology, sanitation and policy is being reduced to a huge boy scout programme. One has to see whether such sanitation programmes can turn anti-poor. The ghost of Sanjay Gandhi who targeted the poor in eliminating poverty haunts such cleanup programmes.

Cleanliness is not a simple problem. It links nature and culture, politics and technology and goes deep into some of our deepest anxieties and fears. Any government that fails to understand this is doomed in the long run.


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