Editorial Articles

Editorial Volume-27

Gandhiji, Sanitation and Social Enterprise

Sudarshan Iyengar

In 1990, India also became one of the signatories to the Millennium Development Goals. Since then the country has performed moderately well in the area of improving health and hygiene. UNICEF’s Report Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2014 Update shows that India made reasonable improvement in sanitation coverage between 1990 and 2012. Urban India had relatively better base in 1990, but rural India’s status with respect to sanitation was poor. In 1990, 50 per cent population in urban India had access to improved sanitation facilities and in 2012, 60 per cent had similar access. In rural areas access to improved sanitation increased from 18 per cent in 1990 to 36 per cent in 2012. Compared to urban India, the performance in rural area was more impressive. Yet one has to accept with all humility that India has a long way to go. India still is a country with highest number of people practising open defecation. The Prime Minister of India has drawn singular attention to this problem and initiated action afresh. It is in this context that we should remind ourselves that the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the first leader of eminence to have focussed his attention on sanitation and hygiene problem all his life. In this article Gandhiji’s ideas and role in improving sanitation and hygiene in India are discussed in brief and it is followed by discussing the scope for social innovation and enterprise in hygiene and sanitation work for youth especially those who are not gainfully employed.

Gandhiji’s Concerns and Work

Gandhiji had internalised the need for high standards of sanitation for any civilised and developed human society. He had gained understanding from his exposure to the western society. He told that the West had evolved a science of corporate sanitation and hygiene. One thing people in country could and must learn is the science of municipal sanitation. From his days in South Africa to his entire life in India, Gandhiji relentlessly and untiringly propagated sanitation. To Gandhi, sanitation was one of the most important public issues. Starting from 1895 when the British Government in South Africa tried to discriminate Indian and Asian traders on the ground of insanitation in business area, Gandhiji continued mentioning issue of sanitation in public arena till January 29, 1948, a day before he was assassinated. In the draft constitution for the Lok Sevak Sangh that was to replace the Congress, he mentioned the following in the duties of the people’s worker. ‘He shall educate the village folk in sanitation and hygiene and take all measures for prevention of ill health and disease among them’.

Gandhiji in the same breath carried his concern for curse of untouchability in the country. Removal of untouchability was a personal, social, religious and political agenda for him. Sanitation for him was not limited to having clean and hygienic toilets, streets, and waste disposal, but it extended to integrating the scavenging and other communities that had become untouchable for centuries in the Indian society. Liberty and equality for every individual on earth was the most cherished value for Gandhiji. In his view India would remain insanitary if untouchability was not completely removed from the society. Hence, the tribute to Gandhiji would remain underpaid if we as a society fail to respond comprehensively to do away finally with insanitation and the social sickness of untouchability. Gandhiji had not merely taken an intellectual position on the issue, but he was emotionally committed to it and spent his life in removing this blemish. He was out to sanitise the orthodox mind-set with all embracing love for the untouchables.

Gandhiji’s preoccupation with sanitation issue in South Africa was because the British tried to scuttle the trade and business initiatives of the Indian community using the stick of sanitation. Gandhiji understood that overcrowding was one of the main reasons for insanitary conditions in any locality. Indian communities in certain locations in the towns of South Africa were not allotted adequate space and infrastructure. Gandhiji had categorically drawn attention about it. He rightly believed that it was the responsibility of the Municipal body to provide space and infrastructure to live in sanitised conditions. He was also persuading people to improve sanitary habits. He told the community that the meanest of the community should know the value of sanitation and hygiene. Overcrowding should be stamped out.People should gain for themselves a name for the practice of the laws of health which would always stand them in good stead.

After coming back from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi travelled extensively in the country using railway’s third class. He was appalled by the insanitary conditions in trains, ships, holy places and neighbourhoods; villages were virtual hells.Between 1915 and 1925 Gandhiji addressed many public gatherings. Many municipalities gave him civic receptions. On almost every occasion he brought sanitation related issues in his address. In Navajivan and Young India Gandhiji wrote about sanitation frequently. In almost every Congress major convention he in his speech touched upon the sanitation issue. For Gandhi insanitation was an evil. In a speech in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on August 25, 1925, talking to the potential village level constructive workers he told the workers to go to villages with broom-stick, quinine, castor oil and spinning wheel which represented health, hygiene, sanitation and village industry. Normally Gandhiji would not recommend use of force but in the matter of sanitation he had noted that he was immensely pained at the level of insanitation throughout the length and breadth of the land and that he was almost reconciled to compulsion in this most important matter of routing out insanitation.

Gandhiji had suggested sanitation education from primary school onward. He wrote that teaching did not mean only knowledge of the three R's. Lessons in manners and sanitation and removal of untouchability were the indispensable preliminaries to the initiation into the three R's. Gandhiji firmly believed that sanitation and hygiene was everybody’s business. He then told every volunteer and constructive worker to become a scavenger so that the class of manual scavengers was eliminated.He knew that they stood last in the list of the condemned.

Gandhiji was a doer too. In South Africa sanitation work in Phoenix Ashram and Tolstoy Farm was done by all inmates by turn. Many experiments were conducted and human excreta was turned into fertiliser and considered very valuable. In India the sanitation work in Kochrab, Sabaramati and Sevagram Ashrams was also done by all inmates. Gandhiji and the inmates had amply demonstrated that scientific handling of sanitation can be attempted by all and should be practised by all. Doing so would also help ending the problem of inhuman scavenging and untouchability.

Social Innovation and Enterprise

The youth in the country should be reoriented to think about sanitation issue as an opportunity to innovate and become social entrepreneurs having economic implications. Sulabh International is a shining example of innovation and enterprise in sanitation sector.There is also Sanitation and Environment Institute in Sughad, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Founders of both were inspired by Gandhiji and impressed by his efforts. However, one or two such institutions are not enough for the country. There is immense scope to turn the sanitation problem in the country into an opportunity. The political will required is that of encouragement and facilitation. The youth of India who take up the work of sanitation should be recognised, helped, paid and lauded. The 2016 Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson is awarded and recognised for his work on amelioration and resettlement of manual scavengers. According to him there are still around 200,000 manual scavengers in the country. Youth should come forward and design schemes to wean them away from this inhuman occupation. The work involves two aspects. One is, pressurising, persuading and arranging toilet construction for those households who create this work for manual scavengers. The Gram Panchayats and Municipal bodies in whose jurisdiction manual scavenging is taking place should be duly penalised. Their grants should be made conditional. Second is to skill the scavenging community members and provide alternative vocations. The governments at all levels should come forward with a special scheme to support the willing youth. Sulabh International, Sanitation and environment institute and similar institutions of proven core competency and commitment may become the nodal agencies to undertake the planning, training, and monitoring the scheme.

The problem of open defecation is rampant is rural India. The disposal is considered to be dirty and despicable. The government should recognise treated human excreta as organic manure and provide incentive price support for its acquisition. The village youth should be given skill training to handle the human excreta scientifically and hygienically. This is possible. Then a village level human excreta treatment plants should be supported. The home toilet linked with the two pit latrines also makes them tiny treatment plants and its use should be incentivised. Toilet construction and treating and using scientifically treated human excreta are the modern constructive programme of Gandhiji.

The households in rural and urban India can also be oriented (if necessarily compelled with penal provision) to segregate waste at household unit level. The collection, processing, recycling and disposal should be a social enterprise for which adequate support and requisite training should be given to youth and they should be oriented to participate. Once youth come into this work there will be innovations leading to better handling and disposal. The central premise still is that we should have strong dislike for filth, dirt and insanitation and love and sympathy for the condemned people who do the cleaning and disposal. We have to respond to Gandhiji’s call. 


(The author is former vice chancellor, Gujrat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad. e-mail: sudarshan54@gmail.com)