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Cities and the Swachh Bharat Mission

Arunima Rajan interviewed me recently for an article in Healthcare Executive, on what ails India’s cities, and whether the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission can tackle these ailments. Here is the full text of the interview:

Q1. Can clean cities lead to healthier cities?

Pavan: Absolutely. Cities are prosperous because they promote proximity – allowing large numbers of people to live and work close to each other. Serendipity and the ease of meeting diverse people are what make cities innovative.

However, when lots of people start living close together, managing waste and pollution of various forms becomes challenging. In Indian cities, it is unclean water, surroundings and air that contribute to a majority of the communicable disease burden.

If less solid waste can be managed, sewage can be processed and drinking water kept clean – diseases like Dengue, chikungunya, cholera, diarrhoea and others would drastically come down.

Q2. Has Swachh Bharat provided a good framework to address public health problems? Do you think the policy has been successfully implemented?

Pavan: The Swachh Bharat programme has correctly identified that human behaviour is a key reason why our cities and villages are not clean. Changing people’s behaviour is critical to having high hygiene standards, enabling segregation at source, ensuring toilet use, and more. By making ‘Swachchata’ a moral cry — the mission has become the biggest political attempt against open defecation and for public cleanliness since Gandhi’s efforts.

In India, we often talk about good policies that are unable to be enforced properly. No new policies can be implemented if say 90% of the people violate it. What makes policies work is having 90% of the people follow the new rules on day one, with enforcement only playing a role with the 10% who don’t. Thus, Swachh Bharat with its focus on changing behaviour has a good chance of success and making India cleaner.

However, Swachh Bharat may work better in villages, where public systems and infrastructure are less relevant. Swachh Bharat has not adequately considered how to put better municipal systems in place, and fund better infrastructure.

Q3. Does the policy draw the links between public health, sanitation and solid waste management to an effective manner?

Pavan: The idea of ‘Swachhata’ is powerful because it can be used to mean various things from personal hygiene to public cleanliness to toilet use. However, this ambiguity is a double-edged sword. In some places, it could promote solid waste management but ignore sanitation. Or, act against littering but ignore the state of public toilets. The mission may also fall a victim of its ambition — toilet use, avoiding littering and waste segregation are all independently difficult to promote even with focused action, and the mission seeks to do it all.

Q4. Do you think Swatch Bharat can be successfully implemented by inter-ministry/inter-government collaboration? Can top-down approach help in successful implementation of the initiative?

Pavan: Swachh Bharat mission’s best chance of working is to provide an umbrella framework that encourages independent action by states, cities, localities and leaders. While the union government may be successful in getting the Indian railways to clean up trains and stations, it cannot dictate what states and cities can do.

For example, the MLA and the citizens of Malleswaram in Bangalore have started an initiative called ‘Smart Swachh Malleswaram’ — where they want to make their locality cleaner using technology and data, as well as citizen action.

While the goal of Swachhata remains the same, the activities, the ideas, the management — all remain locally driven. Such a style of the Swachh Bharat mission is most likely to work in India’s many cities, rather than a purely top-down bureaucratic exercise that is thrust on cities and localities.

Read the full article on Healthcare Executive.

(Disclaimer – Takshashila’s Centre for Smart City Governance is a training partner for the Smart Swachh Malleswaram initiative.)

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