The sweeping of Bharat
It is as customary in politics as it is in administration to expect a new dispensation to sweep clean the debris and dust of the old order. It is just as customary to fix such sweeping with a suspicious eye and mutter that new brooms after all must sweep, for such is their calling.
Yet what we now see in India appears to be no ordinary broom and no ordinary sweeping. There is a movement afoot to clean the country and its chief cleaner and founder had this to say on 2 October (the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi): “Does the job of getting rid of filth belongs to municipal cleaners only? Isn’t it the duty of all the 1.25 billion Indians? We have to change this situation. All of us are responsible for no longer keeping our country like this.”
The exhortation was delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has set a benchmark for plain speaking in his government. The tone was set and early adopters proved to be, not the average Indian weary of garbage in her neighbourhood, but practically every government department.
Against a background of apathy by government departments that has been painfully familiar for two decades and more, this is unusual but not surprising. The new Bharatiya Janata Party government has impressed upon bureaucrats and government servants that they too are responsible citizens first, which is why every day after 2 October, one ministry after another has advertised its eagerness to sweep India clean through press releases, posed photographs and stilted promises.
The campaign, called ‘Swachh Bharat’, or clean India, has at best left ordinary citizens both bemused and amused. To set the ball rolling, Modi invited nine well-known citizens to begin a high-profile sweeping. Amongst them is Sachin Tendulkar, the cricketer, who quickly sent for a bunch of the typically ordinary brooms that Indian households use, rounded up some of his friends, and set to work in his Mumbai neighbourhood with at least as much technique as he once used to score runs on the cricket pitch.
But the clean India campaign is also proving to have reached places that no such campaign before it has. The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who ordinarily ponders monetary policy and interest rate adjustments, is reported to have turned his attention to how new toilets in rural India can be financed. Moreover, India’s University Grants Commission, the apex body that coordinates higher education in the country, has instructed all the universities to ensure clean and green campuses.
Preferring the questionnaire to the broom, Delhi University has decided to sociologically study the impact of Modi’s campaign (will Delhi’s residents actually stop littering, they have asked). The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (whose job it is to monitor the gigantic Indian economy) has been asked to “develop an appropriate statistical framework” so that the government can judge whether the campaign is working and how it may be adjusted. And the first smartphone application has been released with which litter-averse Indians can tag unclean places in their city wards, upload pictures to a dedicated portal, and perhaps wait for a municipal cleaner to turn up, armed with a now very familiar broom.