Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, I look out more keenly for whether the prime minister’s ambitious and well-meaning project has made any impact in the small- and medium-level towns that my travels often take me to, where festering heaps of garbage whether in public bazaars or in residential areas are commonplace. The answer, at this point, would have to be a no. Of course, given that it is still early days and these are random, anecdotal observations, it would be unfair to draw conclusions about the long-term impact of the scheme. But it remains unclear how the scheme hopes to galvanise municipalities into taking better care of public hygiene, that is, presuming that it is the collapse of civic bodies, which has been identified by its planners as the core reason for the garbage crisis in small town India.
In the absence of a clearly articulated blueprint for how the mission will work at the ground level, the worthies at the Ministry of Urban Development, the nodal ministry for the urban waste management component of the scheme (toilet building is a separate component of Swachh Bharat ), might do well to look at the example of the transformation of the town of Katihar in Bihar, 300 km east of Patna. I learnt of the Katihar experiment from Moushimi Kumari, the co-ordinator for SEWA Bharat, the wing of the renowned non-governmental orgranisation SEWA, focused on mobilising workers in the unorganised sector.
As she tells it, Katihar was no different from small towns across India (particularly, dare I say, north India): the local municipality was not in the least serious about garbage collection; most workers contracted for clearing garbage existed on paper; the funds allotted for payments were siphoned off. As a result, waste piled up everywhere. This, combined with public apathy, meant that even in some of its posh colonies, residents would simply toss their garbage onto the streets or into vacant plots. In 2012, coinciding with the entry of an enlightened municipal commissioner, SEWA, which was working on livelihood schemes for women in the area, entered into a one-year pilot for garbage clearing and collection in nine wards of Katihar town. The task (partly supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) was carried out by an all-women team of 50-60 workers, known as saundarya saathis (loosely translated in this context as beautification helpers). Within a year, their number had grown to 150 women, covering nearly 4,000 households across the city. The women, wearing uniforms and gloves, collected waste from door to door, as well as from public places and transported it to a designated landfill on the outskirts of the town. Wages were paid regularly, and in full. Katihar, at least in those areas that fell under the project, began to wear a cleaner look.
But success did not come easily. A section of municipal officials, aggrieved at being denied their monthly cut, got the earlier sanitation workers to repeatedly dump the foulest form of garbage in the main public square every time the saathis would clean it, once notably to mar the visit of then Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi to Katihar. But Kumari said that the saathis, in an act of Gandhigiri, would – without fuss – clean up the second round of garbage until those who were trying to sabotage their efforts simply gave up.
The saathis also faced a more tricky social obstacle. Most of them came from the Mahadalit community, a special category created by Nitish Kumar of the poorest among Bihar’s Dalits. Their entry into the homes of higher castes met with stiff resistance; ironically, those coming to collect garbage were seen as ‘defiling’ the domestic space. It took an intensive awareness campaign in homes, community spaces and local schools to persuade Katihar residents to change their view about the cleaning crews, ensuring not just a cleaner city, but also the breaking down of social barriers.
The story does not end, as most such stories do, on an entirely depressing note. In 2013, by the time the contract came to an end and fresh tenders were floated, the municipal commissioner had changed. The tenders were repeatedly scrapped with the unstated view to ensure that the saathis could not win a fresh contract. They did not. The old practice of commissions has apparently restarted, leading to a dip in cleanliness. On the upside, the agency, which went on to win the contract, has employed about 30 saathis, ensuring that the changes they brought in are not entirely erased.
The question of whether the Katihar model can be replicated is one that is best left for the planners of the Swachh Bharat Mission to consider (it’s entirely possible that other municipalities are already experimenting with similar models). The arguments in favour of scaling it up are strong: it brings together employment opportunities for women, a shift in social attitudes towards civic hygiene, dignity of labour and, of course, a cleaner city. In other words, filling in the granular detail for a cleaner India, which at this moment seems absent in the broad brushstrokes of the vision outlined by the prime minister.
The writer anchors the ground reportage show Truth vs Hype on NDTV 24X7
A shorter version of the column appeared in print