Swachhata Ka Vada, Hai Desh Se Apna Vada!

At every railway station, bus terminal, metro station and through loud speakers set atop garbage-picking-up vans visiting several  colonies across India every morning, people are reminded of (in the inimitable voice of Kailash Kher)  the nation’s commitment to cleanliness and we, as civilized citizens, are exhorted to do our bit to keep this promise. This commitment arose out of the Government’s ambitious Swachchha Bharat  Mission (Clean India Mission), launched with a lot of fanfare on the auspicious occasion of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday 6 years ago i.e., October 2, 2014. It was launched with a slogan asking people of this country to move “One step towards cleanliness”. The occasion was marked by the Prime Minister of this country himself coming down on Delhi’s roads and streets  with a broom to clean them to kick off India’s largest ever cleanliness drive, called by the PM as Satyagrah se Swachhagrah  comparing it to Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha launched on April 10, 1916.

The mission was ambitious indeed as it aimed at inter alia making India “Open defecation free” within the first five years and the first phase of its launch, i.e. till October 2, 2019, which also happened to be Bapu’s 150th birth anniversary. Open defecation is a habit for some but has been a problem for many, especially, women folk in the rural areas who, in absence of personal or community toilets are forced to attend the nature’s call in open grounds or agricultural fields putting their privacy, dignity and environment at a great risk and some of them have even become victims of sexual predators due to this problem. Although, the people in urban areas are better off in this regard, yet toilets are still a luxury for those living on footpaths and in slums.  

The second phase, which is underway and will last till 2024-25, has proper management of solid and liquid waste, another big concern for the country, as its objective apart from maintaining the open defecation free status and thus, to move gradually towards one of the important Sustainable Development Goals[1] (SDGs), fixed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2015 and are to be achieved by at least 2030.

Talking of the real effect of the mission, there is no gainsaying that a lot of initiatives are being taken time to time by the Central Government and various State Governments as a part of this mission and several eminent people from different walks of life have also joined hands with the government to make this drive successful. This, in turn, has led to a great awareness among the general public, especially among the students, towards this mission and its objectives. However, the unfortunate part is that the awareness does not necessarily lead to practice, either on the part of the government or the public.  Although one comes across several instances of this lack of practice on the part of public in the day to day life (and that is very much anticipated and natural, too, because Indians, in general, have hardly been known as people with a great civic sense and cannot be expected to become one overnight as old habits die hard), even a single instance of apathy and lack of practice on the government’s part is shocking, bizarre, unacceptable  and unpardonable, to say the least as it is government, which is supposed to hold the mirror to the society and has to lead the nation by example. Keeping that in mind, the ongoing strike by the civic staff of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) demanding their outstanding wages and the governments’ (the Central as well as the State) failure to resolve the issue flies in the face of the  pious commitment to the cleanliness mission. The dump of garbage lying across the National Capital, the heart of India and the very place from where the mission was flagged off, and the stench emanating there from not only causes indescribable inconvenience and pain to the residents of the city but also makes the government culprit of preaching something it itself does not practice. Surprisingly enough, neither the otherwise-quite-vocal media, which is now preoccupied with the farmers’ protests, has raised even a murmur over it, nor has the ever-vigilant-judiciary taken a due note of the situation (despite both the High Court and the Supreme Court being located within the city). The situation is more alarming as the country is already fighting against the deadly Corona epidemic.

Right to hygiene and sanitation is not only a distinct human right at the international level[2] but, being linked with the Right to life with dignity under Art. 21[3], is also a constitutional right in India.  The State is the primary duty bearer in the context of this right. The duties are twofold, negative as well as positive. The negative duty is not to interfere with the enjoyment of the right, while a positive duty is to take affirmative action for the realisation of this right.[4] Moreover, State, under the Indian Constitution, is also mandated to take steps to improve public health (Art. 47) as well as to protect and improve the environment (Art. 48A). It is an undeniable fact that poor hygiene and sanitation badly affect both the public health and the environment. Therefore, the government’s silence and reluctance to address the situation created by sanitation workers’ strike constitutes a serious violation of a very important fundamental right of the residents of Delhi and breach of a critical, though non-justiciable, constitutional obligation. The third and the fourth pillars of democracy namely, the judiciary and the media respectively, cannot skip the blame either for remaining a mute spectator to this violation.

The role of local bodies, gram panchayats in the rural areas and the municipal councils/corporations in the urban areas, is very imminent in maintaining sanitation in their respective areas and has been underscored by the apex court, too.[5] If they stop functioning, for any reason whatsoever, even for a day, it not only disrupts the maintenance of an essential service like sanitation[6] but also severely affects and throws entire public life out of gear leading to a chaotic situation. Therefore, it becomes imperative on the part of State to ensure their smooth and unhindered functioning by taking a pro-active approach and remaining alert and considerate to the genuine needs and requirements of the staff working in these bodies for proper discharge of their duties.

Yes, we have made a swachhata ka vada (commitment to cleanliness) to our loving country under the Swachha Bharat Mission, but desh se apna vada (the promise to the nation) cannot be kept and mission won’t get accomplished without sincere and active participation, in letter and spirit, of public as well as government.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal

Brajesh Kumar

Advocate and Former Visiting Faculty, University of Delhi

[1] SDG 6 is about “clean water and sanitation for all”.

[2] Cls. 7, 8, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on the Right to Sanitation, 2010. See also; Resol. 1, 2, UN General Assembly Resolution- The Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2015.

[3] Virender Gaur v. State of Haryana (1995) 2 SCC 577; L K Koolwal  v. State of Haryana, AIR 1988 Raj. 2.  See also; Sujith Koonan, “Right to Sanitation in India: Nature and Scope”, published in:  K.J.Joy, Sarita Bhagat (eds.), Right to Sanitation in India: Nature, Scope and Voices from the Margins (Pune: Forum for Policy and Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India) 2016, pp. 1-14 available at http://www.ierlc.org/content/a 1608.pdf (Visited on January 31, 2021).

[4] The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2002.

[5] Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardhichand, AIR 1980 SC 1622.

[6] The Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1981 (No. 40 of 1981), S.2(x).

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