Swachch Bharath Swasth Bharath

Parikshit Thoudam *

Cleanliness is next to godliness. This is a proverb we have been introduced to as a young child. However, when we look at the sanitary practices and cleanliness we maintain in our surrounding, we realize the challenge that lay ahead of us. India's rich history has been a testimony to the importance of clean surroundings. The Indus Valley Civilization had a proper covered-sewerage system and more significantly, every house had its own toilet and washroom.

Ironically, the 21st Century India is yet to achieve this feat but we do see signs of change. The Government of India on 2nd October 2014 launched the Swachch Bharath Abhiyaan with the aim of creating the infrastructure required to build a clean India. Launching such an initiative on the birth date of our great leader is symbolic of the aspirations associated with the program.

Gandhiji was a paragon of cleanliness and he used it as a tool to unite India by breaking the caste divide and sending out the message to the public that people involved in the menial task of cleaning do not belong to the lower strata of the society but are a citizens of the country fulfilling his/ her duties as enshrined in the Fundamental Duties of our Constitution.

Taking the bull by the horn then, let us first ask ourselves why at all cleanliness is important? As per the definition rendered by the World Health Organisation (WHO), good health is "a state of physical, mental and emotional well-being and NOT the mere the absence of disease" and undoubtedly, there is NO GOOD HEALTH without a hygenic environment. Our earth is a closed system and anything we introduce into it as waste product lingers around unless we process it or take measures so that it is properly degraded. If not, it has huge repercussions on human as well as animal health.

The idea of Swachch Bharatha Abhiyaan is to create an avenue for proper waste management for the overall well-being of society. It focuses on providing total sanitation to all the people. We have so far been successful in declaring up to 5 states as Open Defecation Free (ODF) but we still have 21 states to go before declaring ourself as an ODF nation.

This is extremely important as fecal matter lying out in the open can be a breeding ground for a wide variety of vectors and pathogens which can cause and spread diseases. In the past, the developing countries faced a lot of problems due to open defecation causing diseases such as cholera, dysentery, etc. Proper initiatives have been able to curtail this crisis to a considerable extent.

Currently, India has a high burden of diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera etc and immediate steps have to be taken to lower the incidence of such diseases in the future. Let us remind ourselves of the immense economic and social costs that come with diseases. In this world of interconnectedness, it is very easy to pick a few microbes from a place a thousand kilometers away and if the condition of the destination is not clean and hygienic, the inbound pathogen can spread like wildfire.

One major challenge in implementing the ODF campaign is that even though the facility of a toilet is installed, many people still continue to defecate in the open. Certain orthodox communities does not find the idea of using the toilet as it shares space with the puja mandal or the kitchen and lies within the four corners of the house.

Therefore, it is important to study how many people actually do use the toilet instead of using it as a store-room. Here, lies the need for a behavioral change in the people which can be achieved through proper education and awareness programs like the Darwaza Bandh and the Swachch Grahi Campaign. Even the small act of washing hands before eating can protect a person from harmful pathogens and diseases.

The predicament of females in matters related to their menstrual health is also an impediment in expediting the process of tapping the huge demographic dividend of the country. India in her journey of 70 years since independence has come a long way but we have many lacunae to fill. Women and teenage girls in rural areas even today do not know about sanitary pads let alone having access to one. Resorting to other unhygienic means, they fall victim to diseases such as cervical cancer.

In fact, teenage girls are not informed or educated about their menstrual cycle and end up hiding such development from their families undergoing the mental agony and turmoil that the onset of puberty ttriggers. We need to increase awareness, inform girls and urge parents to avoid such consequences. Improving the ease of accessibility of sanitary pads for the underprivileged section should be one of the primary objective of the government. It is important we ensure proper disposal of the pads so that it does not serve as the breeding ground for microbes.

The dawn of industrialised economy has definitely alleviated many out of abject poverty but there is a flip side to industrialisation. Today, environmental degradation and exploitation is a major challenge the world today faces. Pollution of all types, ranging from air to water to soil has been creating havoc in our society.

The toxic fumes we emit into our atmosphere has caused and is causing serious health problems. Let us take the case of Delhi. Compounded by the weather conditions, every winter Delhi is blanketed by a thick smog so severe that schools and offices are forced to close down while the people, especially the infants, face respiratory issues. This is bound to happen, in fact, worsen with every coming year if proper steps are not taken. The exodus of migrants pouring into our urban centers is putting a huge strain on their resources.

Small steps such as greater use of public transport, car pooling, adoption of eco-friendly means of energy production can go a long way in improving the conditions of our urban centers. Another area of concern is the solid waste management. Clearly, our installed infrastructure is unable to cater the huge amount of waste we generate every day. Our landfill sites are getting over-burdened and the waste continues to pile up even as you read this article. We must adopt methods of waste segregation so as to separate the organic waste from other recyclable wastes create products with a monetary value.

This idea of circular economy remains unexplored in our country and could be an answer to the continued jobless growth. Else, landfill sites will continue to encroach more and more land in the already land-starved urban areas while generating tons of Greenhouse gases and other toxic gases affecting human health and our favorite Climate change!

Solid waste also ends up clogging our sewer and gullies and in an event of moderate to high rainfall, hell break loose and flash flood strikes bringing the economy to its knees and also paving the way for the proliferation of vector-borne diseases. Have we not learned enough from the flood we have experienced in cities like Mumbai and Chennai?

Let us look at another aspect of our biosphere water. Today there are many households in the country without access to potable water. In an unhygienic environment, it is extremely difficult to produce and transfer potable water. Our continued disposal of gray and black water into the water bodies have deteriorated their condition.

For instance, even though it has been the top priority to clean the mighty Ganges, no government has been overtly successful in the task. The coliform bacteria count of this river has crossed leaps and bounds and the water continues to be a potent source of diseases. Another example is of the Silicon Plateau Bengaluru.

Many of its magnificent artificial lakes dug by its founder Kempegowda is either lost or is in a completely degraded state. These lakes being highly polluted froths, causing the residents to remain indoor for it poses a major health risk. Keeping these developments in mind it is urgently required that we create the infrastructure to treat our wastewater. Here, lies an opportunity for greater private and public investments, international cooperation and learning from the global best practices such as water purification and conservation technology developed by Israel.

If we want to declare the entire nation as CLEAN INDIA, we need to join our hands together and work for it. We need greater community participation and sense of belongingness for our environment. Our scientific and technological prowess can be leveraged to ensure proper implementation of schemes and develop new tools and techniques for environment conservation. All in all, it is imperative that we develop a holistic approach to waste management and ensure a Swachch Bharath as was envisioned by Gandhiji and reap the benefits of Swasth Bharath which comes naturally as a result of clean and hygienic environment.

* Parikshit Thoudam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is 5th Year BS-MS (Dual Degree), Department of Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal
This article was posted on November 19, 2017.

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