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Special Content


Issue no 27, 02-08 October 2021

Gandhiji’s Vision of Swachh Bharat

Gandhiji, while travelling the length and breadth of India during first two years after returning from South Africa, had realised that sanitation and social hygiene was a huge and perhaps insurmountable problem. It was not the lack of knowledge alone but also the mind-set which prevented people from attending to the most vital problem affecting health and environs. Gandhiji understood that protest and struggle against injustice had to combine with selfimprovement of the individuals and the community that was protesting.

In Educational Institutions and Conferences

Gandhiji had already developed keen sense and insights in the problem of sanitation in the country. In the Social Work League meeting at Madras, he indicated that education from the school age would be the key to good sanitation. No wonder when he got first opportunity to address an educational institution, he was quick to point out the necessity of including sanitation in school and higher education curricula. Speaking at the anniversary of the Gurukul Kangdi on March 20, 1916, he said.

 "A knowledge of the laws of hygiene and sanitation as well as the art of rearing children should also find a necessary part or [the training of] the Gurukul lads. The sanitary arrangements at the fair left much to be desired. The plague of flies told its own tale. These irrepressible sanitary inspectors incessantly warned us that in point of sanitation all was not well with us. They plainly suggested that the remains of our food and excreta needed to be properly buried. It seemed to me to be such a pity that a golden opportunity was being missed of giving to the annual visitors practical lessons on sanitation.

" Gandhiji contributed an article 'Our System of Education', to the Gurukul Kangdi's house magazine Satdharma Pracharak dated March 24, 1917, where he had specifically mentioned healthy body to be a necessary condition for taking good education and hence recommended the need to be educated in the principles of health and hygiene right from childhood.

 Addressing the Second Gujarat Educational Conference in Broach (now Bharuch) in October 1917, he said that for him it was a serious blot on the state of education in the country that the educated doctors had not been able to eradicate disease such as plague. In his visits to the hundreds of homes, he did not find any evidence of knowledge about hygiene. He had made an interesting observation.

"If our doctors could have started learning medicine at an earlier age, they would not make such a poor show as they do. This is the disastrous result of the system under which we are educated. People in almost all the parts of the world have managed to eradicate the plague. Here it seems to have made a home and thousands of Indians die untimely deaths. If this is to be attributed to poverty, it would still be up to the Education Department to answer why, even after 60 years of education, there is poverty in India."

In November 1917, Gandhiji addressed Bihar Students' Conference in Bhagalpur. How could he miss an opportunity to tell students about sanitation and hygiene! In the context of serving the country, he made reference to his letter on the third class railway travel in the press.

He advised students to behave and also educate the fellow passengers in the train.

 "We can explain to the other passengers in our compartment the harm that results from their dirtying the place. Most passengers respect students and listen to them. They should not then miss these excellent opportunities of explaining the rules of hygiene to the masses. The eatables sold at stations are dirty. It is the duty of students, when they find the things dirty, to draw the attention of the traffic manager to the fact, whether he replies or not."

Cities and Villages

In Benares address, Gandhiji mentioned division of most of the Indian cities: cantonment and the city proper. Cantonment area was used as homes for British and other government officials and may be some rich people. In the proper city, which was obviously older than the cantonment was usually a stinking den with the hamlet (mohalla) based easy-going habitations that abused existing sanitation laws and civic traditions. While passing through a mohalla street, experiencing a spit from the building above would be a common experience.

 From Benares, Gandhiji went to Madras (now Chennai) to attend the Missionary Conference. There was his first reference to village sanitation in public speech on Swadesh. In the context of discussion on teaching in vernacular versus English, he made the following point with regard to sanitation.

 "Had instruction in all the branches of learning been given through the vernaculars, I make bold to say that they would have been enriched wonderfully. The question of village sanitation, etc., would have been solved long ago.

" He also spoke at the Madras Social Service League. One of the main planks was sanitation and hygiene in the city at length. From the text of Gandhiji's speech a reader can gather that the lady who chaired the meeting took Gandhiji, prior to the meeting, to a nearby locality where the League had done some useful work in the area of sanitation and cleanliness. He referred to it in his speech and said that the Chair Lady had taken him to Pariah village and described its condition before the League's work began. Upon looking at its status after the league's work, Gandhiji found the place worth praising. He said in his speech.

 "After seeing the village, I make bold to state that it is a model of cleanliness and order and it is much cleaner than some of the busiest and the most central parts of Madras. That is undoubtedly a creditable piece of work on the part of the Social Service League; and if the League can penetrate into the recesses of Madras and do the same kind of work, certain things which I have noticed in Madras will be conspicuous by their absence when I next pay my visit to this great city. (Cheers.) These things stare us in the face and have got to be remedied. When our Pariah brethren are amenable to reason and persuasion, shall we say that the so-called higher classes are not equally amenable to reason and persuasion and are not amenable to hygienic laws which are indispensable in order to live the city life?"

For Gandhiji such experience might have been deja vu. The major contention that the British and European citizens had against the Indians in the cities of South Africa was real but on occasions exaggerated. Working for years with the Indian communties, Gandhiji had developed insights. Hence, he shared his ideas on working of Madras Social Service League. With visit to Kashi Vishwanath temple in mind, he shared his experiences at the Temple and the dirt on the streets of Kashi. He had been aghast to see the same dirt in the sanctuary (he may have used it for Sanctum Sanctorum). He said

 "What is true of Kashi Viswanath is true in the majority of cases in our holy temples. Here is a problem for the Social Service League. It must not be a problem for government or municipality. Immediately you begin going to schools, you leave temples alone. Before we fit ourselves for this work, we should revolutionise the educational system. We are today in a false position and I promise that we shall incur the curse of the next generation for this great tragedy enacted before us. It is a matter forth inking and redressing. The task may be herculean, but this reward will be adequate.

" Gandhiji observed insanitation, dirt and filth in most places in villages, cities, holy places, riverbanks, railways, ships, etc. He found negligence and irresponsibility on part of administrators, managers, and caretakers. On the other hand, people at large were also ignorant, arrogant and irresponsible in attitude and filthy and dirty in habits. He brought up the sanitation and hygiene subject in all possible meetings and conferences, making it part of his political, social and personal agenda. In South Africa, he accepted the charge of insanitation partially, but with great mortification. Back in India not only his embarrassment continued, but also increased immensely as he encountered insanitation everywhere. He, therefore, made it a point to bring it prominently by making it an important component of the constructive programme.

(Excerpts from the book In the Footsteps of Mahatma…Gandhi and Sanitation, written by Prof Sudarshan Iyengar, published by Publications Division.