By Saarthak Anand
This year’s Gandhi Jayanti marked the third anniversary of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, the Swachh Bharat Mission. Addressing a gathering at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan on 2 October, Modi called the programme a success, attributing its triumph to people of the nation.
“India has accepted the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and it has become a people’s movement due to the siddhi of swachhagrahis (cleanliness seekers)… We can all do this together; this is what my countrymen, civil society and media have proved”, he said.
The scheme was launched amid much fanfare on 2 October 2014, when the PM—still fresh into his term—wielded a broom at Rajpath in the capital, remarking, “I am not talking politics; this is beyond politics. This is inspired by patriotism, not politics… I say that with a clean heart… If we paint this again with a brush of politics, we will again do a disservice to Mother India”.
Swachh Bharat is Modi’s attempt to create a unique political legacy. Besides the policy objectives of the programme, it has a certain symbolic value. The Mahatma, to this day, carries a rich political significance. By associating his name with the Swachh Bharat, Modi—having invested huge political capital in the scheme—aims to elevate his own status among the common citizens of the country. Swachh Bharat gives the PM moments under the spotlight on Gandhi Jayanti. Besides, when people see their Prime Minister operate a broom, it is bound to resonate.
Progress in three years
Among the foremost objectives of Swachh Bharat Mission is to rid the nation of open defecation. The construction of toilets is carried out by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in urban regions and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in rural areas. While the task of toilet construction has been going on for a number of decades, Census 2011 reported that a meagre thirty percent of rural households had access to toilets. The uniqueness of Swachh Bharat Mission lies in the fact that commitment to this task comes from the top of the administrative structure. There has, indeed, been rapid progress on this front, as 2,50,000 of the country’s 6,49,481 villages have been declared open-defecation free. There has, however, been no independent verification of the progress. Moreover, a lot of the constructed toilets are not being used. Herein lies the importance of the government’s attempt to bring about behavioural changes through large-scale social campaigns.
While it is far from the mass movement that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like to call it, it is abundantly clear that the Swachh Bharat Mission cannot be dismissed as a mere political gimmick.
Efforts towards increasing rural popularity
The program fits in perfectly with BJP’s attempts to overhaul its voter base, and move from a primarily urban-middle-class support to a loyal rural backing. It supplements measures such as rural electrification and installation of LPG connections. Swachh Bharat also provides the party with the opportunity of wooing women voters—who are the worst victims of open defecation – in particular. At the recent gathering on Gandhi Jayanti, Modi said, “Lack of toilets affects women the most. Why can’t men learn from their female family members who don’t urinate until they reach home despite facing problems… Until this change comes, we can’t understand the real meaning of cleanliness.”
PM Modi is walking the extra mile to project himself as a leader of the masses, who has the potential to rise above politics. Swachh Bharat is another step in that direction. It must also, however, be realised that three years after it was launched, the programme no longer carries the same splendour that it once did. Unless the programme translates into actual long-term improvements on the ground, it will fall short of reaping the dividends Modi is hoping for. Symbolism only goes so far.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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