Why is India still the world’s dirtiest and most polluted country?

It is quite apparent that six years after the Prime Minister announced ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ with much fanfare, there has been little change at the ground level

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Mohan Guruswamy

The Economist recently carried a story about India’s environment headlined “Why is India one of the most polluted countries on Earth”. The Economic Times followed this with a story headlined “India alarmingly filthy even by standards of poor countries”. Nobody living here can deny it. Most of our lakes and rivers are severely poisoned with urban and chemical effluents. The air in most of the cities, particularly in north India is polluted well beyond the prescribed levels.

Even without reading these, it is now quite apparent that six years after the Prime Minister announced ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ with much fanfare, it is apparent that we cannot clean up the rotting trash that has become so common on our streets all over the country. Men can be seen all over the country peeing on walls or into the air. It is almost impossible to find any pavements in our towns and cities, and when there are some, they are strewn with trash and wet with urine.

Simple logic tells us we need a lot more trash bins and public toilets. But that is the easy part. Keeping them clean and usable is the more difficult part. Clearly we are failing. We have a system of high cost government with low returns. We need a newer and better way of managing ourselves.

Visiting the Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916, Mahatma Gandhi in his address said: “I visited the Vishvanath temple last evening. If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temples should be as dirty as they are? If even our temples are not models of cleanliness, what can our self- government be? We do not know elementary laws of cleanliness. We spit everywhere. The result is indescribable filth.”

In the 104 years since then, things have only worsened. We not only spit everywhere, we piss everywhere, we defecate wherever and dump our garbage anywhere. India is easily the most dirty, unhygienic and filthy country in the world.

Picking up from here, our Prime Minister had launched the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign to clean up India. He announced an ambitious campaign to build home toilets for 12 million urban households, 25 million public toilets, and 30 million community toilets. In all, over 300 million were to be helped with “solid waste management practices” and this was to be achieved by 2019 at a cost of Rs.62009 crore.

This was not a sum that we could not afford. Will India become a cleaner, healthier and more hygienic nation, less offensive to sight and smell? I didn’t think so then and now it is apparent that the Swachh Bharat campaign has so far been more of a failure than a success.

Though the Prime Minister must be lauded for flagging this as a priority, intentions are not everything. He did not think of ways to implement the plans. The PM’s ambitions were huge. He also promised to build one hundred smart cities with 24X7 drinking water, zero garbage disposal and total solid waste management with full-scale drainage and sewerage systems. A look at East Delhi today will tell you that not little, but nothing has happened in this BJP-controlled municipality. It’s the same all over the country.

The BJP’s manifesto promised a hundred new cities because new cities are imperative, as by 2050 India will almost double its present urban population by adding another 450 million people. It is this urbanization that will also be its major driver of economic growth.

But even if we find the money, where is the public administration to do it? We now have a highly centralized system more suitable to governing India than serving India. The structure of our public administration with its preponderance at the national and state capitals and with a tiny fraction left to interface with citizens at a local level, and even these not being answerable to citizens, is at the root of our inability to transform this country.

When India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru advocated disbanding the British-inherited civil service and wanted a new system of public administration that will not just preserve order to facilitate extraction, but will drive change and equitable development. Sardar Patel however was against such a radical transformation of government, and preferred India to be administered by an elite civil service such as the ICS.

This led to the creation of the IAS and IPS as the main instruments of administration. But the system remained as before, a system to maintain control rather than transform. The consequences of this are still apparent. The three levels of government together employ about 185 lakh persons. The central government employs 34 lakhs, all the state governments together employ another 72.18 lakhs, quasi-government agencies account for a further 58.14 lakhs, and at the local government level, a tier with the most interface with the common citizens, we have only 20.53 lakhs employees.

This simply means we have five persons ordering us about, for every one supposedly serving us. What this translates into is that if you build toilets, you won’t have enough people to clean them. Ditto for sewage systems. As it is, garbage pickup is selective, tardy and the signs of failure can be seen in all our cities and villages.

It’s not that an attempt was not made to change this centralized system. In 1952 the government launched the Community Development Program hoping to transform rural India with the people's participation. This program was formulated to provide an administrative framework through which the government would reach down to the district, tehsil / taluka and village levels.

All the districts of the country were divided into "Development Blocks" and a "Block Development Officer (BDO)" was made in charge of each block. Below the BDO were appointed the workers called Village Level Workers (VLW) who were to initiate change in the villages. Thousands of BDOs and VLWs were trained for the job of delivering an array of government programs and to take government down to the villages.

But this highly ambitious and idealistic restructure of government didn’t exactly gel with the existing control mechanism of governance. Before long, the two structures meshed and we were back to the old tried and tested system of government meant to rule India and not transform it.

In 1957 the Balwantrai Mehta Committee assessed the Community Development Program and the National Extension Service and held that it had largely failed in meeting its objectives. The Ashok Mehta Committee that followed was tasked with evolving an effective and decentralized system of development administration. The Committee held that development would only be deep and enduring when the community was involved in the planning, decision-making and implementation process and suggested an early establishment of elected local bodies and devolution to them of necessary resources, power and authority.

Its core recommendation was that the district must be the basic building block and envisaged a two-tier system, with the Mandal Panchayat at the base and the Zilla Parishad at the top.

This structure too did not develop the requisite democratic momentum and failed to cater to the needs of rural development. There are various reasons for such an outcome which include political and bureaucratic resistance at the state level to share power and resources with local level institutions, domination of local elites over the major share of the benefits of welfare schemes, lack of capability at the local level and lack of political will. Consequently no rural area in India has any worthwhile local government.

For that matter nor does any city or town in India have a truly independent municipal administration autonomous of the state governments. It is as if the common people have lost control over their lives and are now victims of the whims and fancies of distant masters.

The Prime Minister has done well by impressing on people the need to keep their surroundings clean. While people must not litter and dispose them at convenient appointed places, the job of lifting the garbage from there for disposal is that of the appropriate tier of government. While people are expected not to defecate everywhere, the responsibility of providing sanitation is that of the state. Building toilets at public places and institutions and impressing on people to use them is laudable, but keeping them working and clean is the job of the state.

The condition of most public conveniences, including in the Central Secretariat, will tell you that government is not working. The Prime Minister should turn his focus on why the government fails to deliver services in India. Only then can he make a ‘Swachh Bharat’.

A clean India will automatically generate an additional 1-2% GDP growth and we can truthfully account for Public Administration as Services for national income accounting.

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