Why India Is Dirty and How to Clean It
Image Credit: Flickr/ amanderson2

Why India Is Dirty and How to Clean It


Readers of The Diplomat will note that this has been a busy week for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While he spent the first half of the week marketing his government’s message in the United States, he spent the second half of his week beginning campaigns to inform Indians about his domestic plans.

On Friday, Modi gave his first radio address to the Indian people. It was mostly a pep talk urging Indians to think positively. Modi also informed the Indian people that he would make his radio talks a regular event in order to enable him to communicate better with the general public.

As I argued previously, Modi seems really set on changing the mindset of people in India towards a variety of things, and his radio addresses will be a part of this goal. This is perhaps necessary because the attitude of people often determines what they do and do not do, how hard they work, what sort of goals they set, and so on. This is turn affects the country’s collective attitude. India as a whole has several attitudes that inhibit social change and economic growth. These attitudes range from Nehru’s disdain of private enterprise to Gandhi’s disdain of industrialization and assertive military force.

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Going farther back in time, Indian society traditionally had certain attitudes against manual labor that have led to a lack of cleanliness in India. Anyone who has been to India will notice how dirty it is. Although this fact embarrasses a lot of educated Indians, it is a fact that cannot escape notice. The unfortunate thing is that India’s dirtiness cannot be written off due to its poverty, as there are plenty of other poor societies that are cleaner than India. It is in light of these facts that Prime Minister Modi launched his Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Campaign) on Thursday. Modi publicly wielded a broom and cleaned garbage from a street.

Taking a cue from the recent “Ice Bucket Challenge” that swept the internet, Modi tagged nine celebrities and politicians to take part in the campaign and urged them to tag others in turn. Modi exhorted each individual to spread the message of a clean India to a hundred individuals in turn. Modi also administered a pledge to students and other people at an event on Thursday, where they all vowed to keep India clean. The pledge urged every individual to remain committed to cleanliness and devote time to this. A section of the pledge read: “I will devote 100 hours per year — that is two hours per week — to voluntary work for cleanliness. I will neither litter nor let others litter.” Additionally, the pledge said “I will initiate the quest for cleanliness with myself, my family, my locality, my village and my work place. I believe that the countries of the world that appear clean are so because their citizens don’t indulge in littering nor do they allow it to happen. With this firm belief, I will propagate the message of Swachh Bharat Mission in villages and towns.”

The campaign is significant because of its attempt to change Indian attitudes toward cleaning and manual labor. Of course, for it to be successful, it has to be implemented consistently over a long period of time if people are not to revert back to business as usual. Why is it necessary to change Indians’ attitudes towards cleanliness? Because this attitude is the cause of India’s dirtiness, not poverty. The lack of funds do not explain the dirtiness of Indian’s public spaces.

Many Indian houses are meticulously cleaned and spotless. Yet right outside rows of these clean houses, there are filthy streets with mountains of garbage. This shows that the public sphere is a concept in Indian society that has traditionally been absent. People in India have traditionally stuck to their family, community and caste group, of which there are around 10,000. These groups and communities were the mediums through which most people conducted their social interaction. Thus, the concept of a shared public space, used by everyone and kept clean to everyone was not one to take hold in a segmented society. This is changing however, as old social barriers break down and more and more people mix and congregate in urban areas.

Related to the concept of class and caste are Indian attitudes towards cleaning and manual labor. When the concept of cleaning and doing physical work in order to make spaces clean is associated with lower classes and castes, there is little incentive for anyone to work hard at keeping public spaces clean. Better-off people do not feel it is dignified to clean while worse-off people resent being boxed into the tasks of cleaning, which in India are often extremely dehumanizing due to the extreme accumulation of garbage and feces. They thus have absolutely no incentive to do a thorough job.

This has created a destructive cycle in Indian society that India is only now recovering from. Often the materials, including water, that are necessary for cleaning are denied to the cleaners themselves (particularly in rural areas) because they are perceived as unclean. Fear of contamination and pollution thus reinforces that uncleanliness of cleaning communities and society in general. Handling trash, including human waste, literally makes certain people in India untouchable (though not in the legal sense anymore) because these people clean the garbage of others but cannot really clean themselves. This is a recipe for the accumulation of dirt throughout India. At the opposite end of the spectrum, well-bred individuals have traditionally refused to clean. This attitude was evident, for example at the 1901 Congress Party convention, “where Mahatma Gandhi told delegates it was a disgrace that manual scavengers were being used to clean the latrines. He asked delegates to clean their own latrines and when they did not, he publicly cleaned his own.”

This is not to say that Indians are not hardworking or lack a work ethic. Islam encourages a positive attitude towards manual work and Hindu teaching is neutral on the matter, simply arguing that individuals should try their hardest at doing whatever it is they’re doing. The attitudes against manual labor, though, seem to be deeply ingrained in Indian society for a variety of sociocultural reasons and there is a general perception that blue-collar work is degrading while white-collar work is uplifting. This is, of course, true in most societies as well but in India there is a strong bias against working with one’s hands, which is closely connected to status. This in turn leads to a lack of professionalism and quality in the performance of many physical tasks, including cleaning.

This is one of those cases where there is really no scope to justify and contextualize a certain viewpoint. Indian society’s traditional attitudes towards manual labor are harmful in a moral sense and are also damaging toward the economy, society, and public spaces. In short, it has to change and people ought to understand that there is honor in manual labor as well. There needs to be a broad social acknowledgement that the artisan — one who works with his or her hands — is equally dignified in labor as one who works with the mind. This in turn will help make India a cleaner place as well.

What is needed in India is a Japanese-style attitude towards cleanliness where everyone, no matter their social status, learns that it is his or her duty to clean shared spaces, starting in elementary school. In many Indian schools, cleaning, especially cleaning of toilets, is a task relegated to a certain worker or student, usually of a lower caste. If this person fails to perform this task adequately (and it’s no surprise that this is often the case, as a life of cleaning toilets is undesirable), nobody else does the necessary cleaning, and filth accumulates. Thus it is crucial for important social figures to set an example by openly and publicly cleaning and showing that anyone can perform this labor without losing dignity. Thus, it is a great thing that Modi is sending this message to the people of India. It has both a practical component (actually cleaning) as well as a psychological component, both of which are necessary for India to become clean.

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