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Special Content

Issue no 27, 01-07 October 2022

Gandhi and Swachhata

Dr. Sanjeev Kumar

On 2nd October, 2014, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, launched a nationwide Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary. The campaign aimed to achieve the vision of a 'Clean India' by 2nd October 2019. India's battle for cleanliness and hygiene has got a fillip through the 'Swachhata hi Seva' - cleanliness is service - campaign, which seeks to make sanitation a shared responsibility. The strenuous and dedicated efforts of the Government and active citizen participation have contributed to the noble cause in achieving universal sanitation with the installation of more than 100 million toilets in rural India. India has made rapid progress in extending sanitation coverage with the number of people defecating in the open declining significantly by an estimated 450 million people in the last couple of years.

Gandhiji Connected Swachhata with Swara: Gandhiji's vision for a clean country had three basic aspects, viz. sanitation, Swaraj, and abolishing untouchability. It is pertinent therefore, to recapitulate what Gandhiji's thoughts were on cleanliness (Swachhata) and how Gandhiji went ahead with the mission. Gandhiji viewed cleanliness as an integral part of his campaign for Swaraj. He adopted the slogan "cleanliness is next to godliness" even as a student but later changed that into "cleanliness is godliness". Mahatma Gandhi had realized early in his life that the prevalent poor state of sanitation and cleanliness in India and particularly the lack of adequate toilets, in the then largely rural India, needed as much attention as was being devoted towards attainment of Swaraj. He said that unless we "rid ourselves of our dirty habits and have improved latrines, Swaraj can have no value for us". Along with the struggle for India's independence, he led a continuous struggle for sanitation, cleanliness, and efficient management of all categories of wastes throughout his public life, in South Africa and then in India.

Gandhiji Advocated Scientific Approach to Sanitation: Gandhiji was probably the first leader to repeatedly emphasize that the responsibility for sanitary living applied equally at personal, domestic, and corporate levels. He advocated scientific approach in all aspects of sanitation and wanted India to learn from the West in the matter of sanitation. He wrote, "I shall have to defend myself on one point, namely, sanitary conveniences. I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West. I believe that many rules about cleanliness in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East. The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. I, therefore, believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature and clean articles for use at the time. I have accustomed myself to them and wish that all others should do the same. The habit has become so firm in me that even if I wished to change it, I would not be able to do so. Nor do I wish to change it."

Gandhiji Espoused Volunteering and Community Awareness: Gandhiji's passion for cleanliness goes back to his days in South Africa (1893- 1914). The Indian community then was not known for keeping houses and surroundings clean. Gandhiji wished to change this perception and worked with the community to take voluntary measures to maintain cleanliness. Gandhiji visited India in June 1896 while there was an outbreak of Plague in Bombay. In Rajkot where Gandhiji stayed, to prevent the spread of the epidemic, he volunteered his services to the Sanitation Department and laid special stress on community awareness and cleanliness of latrines. During inspections, Gandhiji observed that the houses of the poor were clean and tidy compared to the houses of rich. While the poor welcomed suggestions for better sanitation, the upper class refused to act. In the year 1901 while on his second visit to India, Gandhiji attended the Congress session in Calcutta. He found the same indifference for sanitation. There were only a few latrines and the rush was big. He records, "I pointed it out to the volunteers. They said pointblank: 'That is not our work, it is the scavenger's work.' I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. I procured one and cleaned the latrine." He however could not persuade others to do the same. Some delegates even used their verandah for defecation and again he took up its cleaning. Then during his train journey in third class from Calcutta to Rajkot he found the compartments dirty and closet arrangements "as bad, today as they were then". At Benares, he went to the Kashi Vishvanath temple and was deeply pained to see the "narrow and slippery lane", "swarming flies", "a stinking mass of rotten flowers", the floor "serving as an excellent receptacle for dirt", and the surroundings too dirty. 

Gandhiji Fought to Abolish Untouchability - a Plague that Afflicted Sanitation Workers: When Gandhiji had taken control of the Congress, he organized a party of two thousand volunteers for doing scavenging work in Haripura Congress session, which had men and women from all castes, including upper caste. Later, Gandhiji led an all-India movement for 'Removal of Untouchability' and instituted an 18-point 'Constructive Programme' which included apart from 'removal of untouchability,' 'village sanitation' as well as 'education in health and hygiene'. Gandhiji even went on 'fast unto death' for recognition of 'untouchables' as equal part of the Hindu society and then set up Harijan Sevak Sangh and undertook an all-India tour for 'removal of untouchability'. Since independence, the Indian society has progressively modernized and urbanized. The basic constitutional scheme for the realization of the socio-economic freedom and equality is laid in Part III and IV of the Constitution. To this effect, Article 17 of the Indian Constitution has played an instrumental role in abolishing the practice of 'untouchability'. Nevertheless, the caste groups involved in scavenging have continued to be linked to the polluting work, such as, sweeping, cleaning toilets and carrying night-soil, and to live in most unhygienic and precarious socio-economic conditions. Manual scavenging remains an issue, inextricably linked with caste injustices. While the practice of manual scavenging is now prohibited by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993; it has still to be fully eliminated. We know a large part of Gandhiji's work on sanitation was related to providing social equality to the untouchables. Gandhiji's goal of Swaraj and his movement for sanitation cannot be accomplished without fulfilling this task. It may be recalled how Gandhiji rebuked his wife Kasturba when she refused to carry and clean the chamber pot in South Africa. Gandhiji threatened her to leave the house if she did not want to be her own scavenger. In an effort to remove the stigma attached to the untouchables, Gandhiji stayed with the Valmikis, involved in cleaning human excreta and scavenging in Valmiki colony in Delhi, for 214 days in 1946-47. From Phoenix in South Africa to Sewagram in Wardha, Gandhiji's ashrams were examples of what service meant in the quest for equality, human dignity and cleanliness. More than an act of symbolism, cleanliness was perceived as a noble service in which all ashramites came together irrespective of the distinction on the grounds of caste, gender, class and religion. On October 2, as we come together to observe the Rashtriya Swachhata Diwas and commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's 153rd Birth Anniversary, let us resolve to turn his dream of Swaraj into reality by committing to the mission of Swachhata by becoming true Gandhi Satyagrahis. Remember, Gandhi's life was a message and young India must strive to fulfill that in both letter and spirit.


(The author is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. He can be reached at sanjeevkumar@zh.du.ac.in)

Views expressed are personal.