The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Narendra Modi, India’s new leader, wants to take out the trash

A rag picker sorts through garbage, picking out recyclable materials to sell, at the Ghazipur landfill site in the east of New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 30, 2014. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg

India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to wipe out chronic corruption and give India a squeaky-clean government during the two months of election campaign this year. But what surprised many Indians is that Modi wants to clean up India in more ways than one.

He wants to literally make Indian cities trash-free.

"Let us create a clean India and place it at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi as a gift for him in 2019," Modi said in parliament on Wednesday, referring to the proposed celebrations for the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the independence movement and the father of the nation.

Modi is the first prime minister to speak about Indians' chronic habits of littering and spitting. And he hasn't done it just once, but again and again and again.

In his very first speech after the spectacular election victory last month, Modi said his vision for a clean India must begin in the ancient Hindu holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River.

"Cleaning our surroundings is also a way of serving Mother India," Modi said.

One of the proposed plans of Modi government is to make throwing trash and spitting into the Ganges river a punishable offense, media reports said this week.

That is easier said than done in a country where garbage is both a behavioral and municipal problem. Indians live uncomplainingly alongside heaps of uncollected smelly, fly-infested garbage strewn on the streets, neighborhoods, playgrounds, hospitals, railway stations, temples and river banks. Many Indians routinely toss out plastic wrappers, empty cigarette packs or cans from their car windows without a care for how their cities look. Storm water drains in the cities are choked with trash.

But Modi will have none of it.

And his message appears to be trickling down to his colleagues too. The ministers in his government are ordering the clean-up of the filthy corridors of government departments.

"The broom is out: Government offices on clean-up drive" was the title of an article in the Business Standard this week.

"The problem of garbage in India is so big that it requires nothing less than the political will at the top level, otherwise it is impossible to create civic awareness because Indians are just too numbed by it," said Robinder Sachdev, who leads a people's campaign called Come, Clean India. "It is music to my ears every time I hear our new Prime Minister speak about cleaning India. If a popular leader like him makes it his priority, it is very likely that hundreds of millions of his followers will take it up across India."

In 2009, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh said Indian cities are the dirtiest in the world: "If there is a Nobel prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt," he said.

Indians reacted to his statement with shock. But then, they went back to littering-as-usual.