Modi's drive against dirt to show that new broom sweeps clean

This article was first published on Oct 3, 2014

With a broom in hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept a street in a Delhi slum as he launched a massive five-year "Clean India" campaign to sweep away the country's poor hygiene and sanitation.

At one point, he even bent down to pick up dirt with his hands and dumped it into a bright blue plastic bucket.

Ministers, bureaucrats and even armed forces chiefs were drafted into sweeping roads, railway stations and their own offices as part of the mission, which Mr Modi has made one of his government's top priorities.

"People of India can do it. If Indians at low cost can reach Mars, why can't we clean our streets and neighbourhood?" asked Mr Modi, who came to power in May. Last week, India celebrated its feat of sending an Indian-made orbiter to Mars.

The social media-savvy Prime Minister also launched a campaign akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge, asking people to nominate nine people to get rid of trash in different parts of India and post before-and-after photographs of the sites on social media.

He put up pictures of the street he cleaned on Twitter and nominated nine persons, including actor Aamir Khan, Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, business tycoon Anil Ambani and cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, to take on similar tasks.

Indian cities and towns are bursting at the seams to accommodate 1.2 billion people, and it is not uncommon to see people littering on the roads, or rubbish piled up on street corners. A poor garbage disposal system coupled with poor planning add to the sanitation problem.

Almost half of India's population, mostly in rural areas, do not have access to toilet facilities.

While yesterday's high-profile launch was lauded by activists, many hoped it would not end up being just a photo opportunity.

"The system needs to change... Even if I gather all the dirt, where do I throw it? Will they improve the garbage disposal system?" asked Dr Ranjana Kumari, a social activist.

Still, others felt that Mr Modi's gesture of picking up a broom had the potential to change attitudes in a hierarchical society, where manual scavengers largely belong to the Dalit community, formerly known as "untouchables".

"For a man like Modi who has won with a huge mandate, taking up a broom is an important gesture... It hasn't happened before. I think the shame of touching a broom is slowly cracking," said Ms Bharati Chaturvedi, an environmentalist and writer.

At the New Delhi railway station, which is notorious for poor standards of hygiene, passengers were surprised to see railway officials and Cabinet ministers sweeping the platforms yesterday.

"I have never seen the platform so clean before in my life. It's a very good initiative," said 39-year-old Ms Saumya Das.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg