NEW DELHI — With brooms in hand, politicians, bureaucrats, police officers and citizen groups descended on the streets Thursday to sweep away trash as part of an ambitious new effort to clean up India.
The country’s $10 billion Clean India campaign aims to install more toilets to end open defecation, improve trash disposal and educate citizens about the link between sanitation and public health. Thursday’s launch was timed to coincide with the birthday of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948.
“We have to give Mahatma Gandhi something on his 150th birth anniversary, in 2019,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “Just like the whole nation united to fight for freedom back then, we have to work together to clean India now.”
On what is usually a public holiday, officials were ordered to report to work to clean their offices and grounds and to pledge to devote 100 hours a year to cleaning.
Public spaces in India’s cities often are eyesores full of rotting piles of trash along the streets, in neighborhoods, public parks and playgrounds, and outside fancy air-conditioned malls and five-star hotels.
Although other politicians have long ignored the problem, the garbage is Modi’s pet peeve. He has urged clean-ups in several speeches since his party won a resounding victory in May.
Modi’s campaign coincides with a nascent stirring among India’s affluent middle class that considers the garbage problem a national shame and has begun sporadic cleanliness drives in several cities in recent years.
“I will not litter, I will not allow others to litter, is what we must resolve if we are true children of this motherland,” Modi said Thursday.
Earlier, he visited a street sweeper’s neighborhood, swept the street and dedicated an eco-friendly public toilet in New Delhi. “When we travel abroad, we are so impressed by how clean other countries are. The secret of their cleanliness is the discipline of the citizens in those countries.”
Far away from Modi’s event, Joginder Pal, 26-year-old municipal sweeper, cleaned the sidewalk next to a “Clean India” sign that featured an image of Gandhi’s round eyeglasses.
“People are always blaming sweepers like us for dirty streets. They forget how much they litter everywhere and all the time without any regard for cleanliness,” Pal said. “If this new program makes them aware of their own responsibility, then it will be effective.”
Indians generate more than 68 million tons of solid waste every year, a 50 percent jump since 2001, according to a 2012 report by Columbia University. The figure is expected to increase to 160 million tons by 2041.
But fixing the trash problem won’t be easy. India’s cash-strapped municipalities, with too few trained urban managers, are woefully ill-equipped to tackle the problem. Forty percent of India’s waste remains uncollected and unprocessed. Human sewage flows directly into the rivers in many cities. About 46 percent of India’s homes have no indoor toilet, 49 percent of the population defecates in the open and the rest use public toilets, according to census data.
“It is refreshing that a topic that has never been considered important in India is suddenly getting the spotlight,” said Shammy Jacob, founder of Saaf India Foundation, a not-for-profit group that tracks Indians’ attitudes toward littering. “But I hope this doesn’t end with just cleaning the streets without working on behavioral change, without asking fundamental questions like: Where is this garbage going? Are we segregating waste? Is it getting recycled and disposed in a sustainable manner?”
Before the high-profile launch, ministers swept their office corridors and streets, did surprise checks to inspect dirty offices and pulled putrefying trash from rivers. Students swept their school grounds.
“It is not easy to change old habits,” Modi said, and he urged citizens to upload videos of their cleaning activities on the program’s social media page. “If Indians can reach Mars with so little money, why can’t Indians clean their neighborhoods?”
Activists said the campaign will be successful if waste collectors are treated with dignity and the work is made less hazardous.
“Waste collectors are not organized, their health problems are not even acknowledged,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, in New Delhi. “They pick all kinds of trash with bare hands, and carry it home in their slums to segregate them. Are we creating safe space for segregation? What rights do they have?”