Swachh Bharat as Swasth Bharat by Dipankar Gupta

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If Europe looks glamorous now that’s because it became hygienic first

By Dipankar Gupta

Indications are that in the monsoon session the Environmental Laws (Amendment) Bill will be passed. This will allow authorities to fine on the spot anyone found littering, dumping, defacing and the rest. You can knock yourself out for a stiffer sentence by burning plastic bags or trashing electronic waste. The worrying signs are there and most of us had better reprogramme ourselves in a hurry. The complete freedom we enjoyed to randomly dirty public places is about to be taken away.

Even so, be warned, there is more to come. Swachh Bharat is not just about looking and smelling good, it is fundamentally about hygiene. Hygiene is a deep cleansing job that goes well below the level of appearances. If Swachh Bharat were mostly about getting pretty, its brooms would only feather-brush the surface. In which case, this campaign would resemble the Hollywood star, Ava Gardner, who reportedly said that deep down she was really superficial.

It is important to be aware of the difference hygienic concerns can bring to the Swachh Bharat initiative. Once this aspect is fully integrated into the scheme tourists will, of course, find India’s looks fetching. But there is a lot more that comes with the package. We can now also boast of being healthier and stronger as morbidity rates would have fallen across classes.

Consider this: Well before Louis Pasteur and Thomas Koch told us about bacteria borne diseases, Europe saw a dramatic decrease in the incidence of tuberculosis and cholera. This was a pure engineering miracle; the doctors had nothing to do with it. What helped most was better housing for the poor, now with proper ventilation, and a careful laying of sewer drains and water pipes. In the same fashion, for maximum results, Swachh Bharat must aim to be Swasth Bharat too!

CSR Brand and Commuication workshop by IndiaCSR in New DelhiThis might test our credulity, but as recently as 1938, author and broadcaster Ludwig Nordstrom published a highly influential book that was actually called ‘Dirty Sweden’. Stockholm, like many other industrial cities in Europe, was filthy and its poorer quarters miserable, squalid, airless and dark. Water too was ferried by private companies in barrels, but as it was heavily contaminated, cholera was a natural outcome. The fact that working class neighbourhoods were more prone to diseases than areas where the better off lived, led administrators to think hygiene.

In fact, a century before antibiotics became routine, Edwin Chadwick’s Public Health Act lowered infections among the poor by improving their living conditions. Prime Minister Disraeli went many steps further by passing the Artisans Dwelling Act in 1875.

In between these two significant developments, John Snow disproved the prevalent view that cholera was caused by ‘bad air’ and linked it, instead, to the quality of water. Paris went through an extensive engineering led hygienic drive in the late 19th century, leading many to argue that Louis Pasteur had successfully pasteurised France.

Once the working population benefitted from the gift of hygiene, it was not just life span that increased, but productivity grew as well. Industrialization, which till then only produced smoke, disease, ruptured lungs and scabies, now became a source of material prosperity. As infant mortality rates fell and infectious diseases became less common, the demand for education began to grow among the labouring classes of Europe.

Today, it is hard to believe that Stockholm, Paris and London were once ‘plague spots’. Had not considerations of hygiene upset the archaic, but dominant, medical views of the time, these cities could have stayed that way for much longer. Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo rained arrows of plague on Troy; the Bible too pronounced that those who sin before God will find themselves in the hands of the doctor. It was, therefore, not knowledge inherited from the past that made for a healthier Europe. It was, if anything, 19th century hygiene oriented public works that did the trick.

Swachh Bharat, properly speaking, is primarily about hygiene, though this point is not as widely accepted as it should be. This is probably because the inclusion of Swasth in Swachh would require not just a higher order of commitment from the state but also greater self-control among citizens.

The drive to construct indoor toilets is an essential aspect of Swachh Bharat, not so much as to protect the dignity of women as it is to control communicable diseases. For this to happen, hygiene demands that clean water and sewerage be delivered simultaneously.

The point of recalling Europe in all of this is to demonstrate that, in the beginning, we were all unmindful of hygiene – that was our original condition. If Europe looks glamorous now it is because it became hygienic first. Swachh Bharat cannot but think along identical lines if it is to achieve its potential. Just punishing people will not do. The state must accompany that with a slew of services ranging from access to water, to serviceable toilets, to good housing and proper drainage.

Once these are accomplished, good looks are guaranteed. The litter police should be there to catch the odd delinquent but as a people the police will, henceforth, be within all of us.

As for looks, handsome is as hygiene does!

[Dipankar Gupta is director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University] 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

The Article first appeared in the Times of India, May 23, 2015

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