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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Swachh Bharat - do we really need an Abhiyan?

If cleanliness really is the aim, all the government needs to do is ensure the army of cleaners, who are already paid full wages, do the work for which they are paid

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Watching the burly young man in a black t-shirt and jeans labouring in the Scandic Orion Hotel, where I was staying in the Norwegian town of Bergen, brought to mind those pictures of Narendra Modi grinning self-consciously, as he clutched a long-handled broom. The contrast between the two visuals highlighted the difference between the European progress and Indian posturing. The young man was painstakingly cleaning the glass wall round the edge of the balcony restaurant overhanging the hotel lobby. It being grey and wet outside, I sat there with Alan Hollinghurst's last novel, The Stranger's Child, which sweeps magnificently over a century of change. But, I barely looked at the book. Watching someone who so obviously enjoyed his work so much so that he performed it meticulously without supervision was itself strangely fulfilling.

Cleaning the glass wasn't particularly difficult. A few squirts from a spray, a vigorous rub with his cloth, and the surface sparkled. But, the balcony's concrete floor was a foot thick. The glass extended all the way down with, possibly, a centimetre's gap between the glass and concrete. Moreover, the large round steel rivets that fixed the glass to the concrete in a decorative pattern also collected dirt. Cleaning the tight space between glass and concrete and ensuring no grime lingered round the rivets demanded special ingenuity. The young man produced what looked like a riding crop. Its three-foot length swished flexibly between a handle at one end and a little point at the other. He draped a thin duster over the point, inserted it into the space between glass and concrete, and rubbed vigorously. From my seat below I watched his large red hand guiding the cloth up and down and side to side until every single millimetre shone brightly.

At some point, he noticed a hazard that had escaped my attention: flecks of dust and dirt loosened by his efforts were floating down to the lobby's polished marble floor. So, he went away again and came back with a woman's umbrella. I watched him tear strips of rag and use them to tie the open umbrella to the gleaming steel rail above the glass wall so that it hung upside down below the balcony. He could slide the umbrella along as he worked. Some time during the morning I climbed the ornamental stairs curving up from the lobby to talk to him. He was Rumanian, he said, and employed as a cleaner. He knew what had to be done. How it was done was up to him, he explained, tearing more strips of cloth and plaiting them together. It had to be strong to hold the umbrella's weight, he said, as it hung upside down, collecting in its hollow whatever dirt his cleaning released. It had stopped raining. My cruise into the fjords for which Norway is famous was due to start. But, the image of that conscientious Rumanian stayed with me as my e-mail brought the usual flood of official propaganda from the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that boasts of covering 4,041 towns and cities and engaging three million government employees and school and college students. It is India's biggest ever cleanliness drive. It draws sanctity from being launched at Rajghat on a hallowed October 2. Courtiers who had clambered aboard the saffron bandwagon in hopes of crumbs of profit naturally applaud the scheme. But, can anyone honestly say with hand on heart that our streets and office buildings, railways and other public spaces are any cleaner as a result?

The Rumanian worker in my Bergen hotel only confirmed what this column has stressed before. If cleanliness really is the aim, all the government needs to do is ensure the armies of jemadars, cleaners and sweepers, who are already paid full wages by hundreds of official departments, do the work for which they are paid. Disciplining them would still be far more effective than the elaborate and expensive Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign.

Having only recently suffered three-long railway journeys in first-class air-conditioned compartments, I know, how slipshod Indian cleaning is. Cleanliness may not be the aim at all. Perhaps the only purpose is to impress voters. The integrity of that Rumanian who not only finds dirt offensive, but is determined to give value for money is virtually unknown in India. To repeat Joseph de Maistre, the 18th century French philosopher, every nation gets the government it deserves. There is no one in our land of opportunistic sycophants to point out that the emperor's "new clothes" don't exist.

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First Published: Fri, August 05 2016. 21:45 IST