A leaking system? Reviewing the Clean India Campaign

The Clean India Campaign – Swatchh Bharat – came into existence shortly after PM Modi’s inauguration in 2014 as the most ambitious cleanliness project in India to date, covering water, sanitation and waste collection in particular. The campaign was launched on Ghandi’s birthday by Modi who stated before national press and reporters that a clean India by Ghandi’s 150th birthday in 2019 would be the greatest tribute India could give him. Ghandi was well known for promoting and foreseeing a cleaner India, but the gesture gives the government just five years to achieve their goal. We are now two and half years in, and Modi as the figurehead of the BJP, often described to me as a ‘bulldozer’ has promoted the campaign aggressively. In Banaras, Modi’s MP constituency, he himself has stood before cameras to sweep the streets of the city, along with movie starts and sports personalities to promote the campaign. But to what extent has this facade transpired into progress visible in people’s everyday lives.

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Ghandi’s glasses, the logo for Swatchh Bharat 

My project has focused exclusively on water, rather than looking at progression in sanitation and waste disposal. Yet it is interesting that Banaras was recently ranked the cleanest city in UP and the 32nd cleanest city in India. Since the campaign was launched great effort and real progress has been made in cleaning up the cities streets and its infamous ghats. Ghats which previously lay beneath years of mud are now used again as a place of worship and communal gathering – and also tourism. The progress you can see in the cities main attractions and main streets is not echoed in many residential areas which are still filthy. The Assi Nala on the South side is full of plastic and waste and smells strongly of sewage. You only have venture slightly off the main roads to find piles and piles of rubbish which is often burnt for lack of a waste collection service – something which has been proudly developed in the cities main areas in the last six months – progress but selective progress.

I so try and not be too sceptical. The streets of the city centre are cleaner and it is important for the historic Ghats to be restored to their traditional beauty. Many people here are proud of what has been achieved and are hopeful for the future. Water progress however is a minefield. The government under the Clean India Campaign is committed to providing safe drinking water to everyone in the city by 2019, but for many people here this is still a far off dream, despite recognition in 2010 from the UN that clean drinking water is essential to the realisation of human rights.

So far the new water ATMs are the most significant form of progress, I have found five in the city in total – a far cry from the 100 reported in the news – again, all of Modi’s progress and media coverage of the campaign seems to exaggerate and sugar-coat the reality. “Affordable water is better than free water” says the MD of the company supplying the machines. This is because the filtered water you are now able to cheaply buy from ATMs under the Clean India Campaign is better and safer than the stuff supplied directly to homes – the governments quick fix to supplying better water. This is can be seen as great progress but still there is a moral dilemma of having to pay for and fetch filtered water, when you already pay water tax to the government to supply you with such a right. It also begs the question, if this is the best and cheapest way to obtain safe water, which you cannot guarantee from taps or wells, then why is there not a queue around the block to get it – this is a populous city and there are only five ATMs, wouldn’t people be lining up to use them?

The answer is complex, but in sum not everyone can afford it. Municipal commissioners are quick to tell me that everyone can afford a penny, but when you have almost nothing to what extent is paying for better water a priority? Furthermore those who need it most don’t even realise it. Education among the lowest strata of society is low, people do not know how diseases are caught or how to prevent them. One 20 year old girl told me yesterday that drinking bad water gives you malaria. They trust the government, many know that the water can be dirty from just looking at it or smelling it, but they say “the government is providing this, so why would it harm me?”, and to be fair they have a point.

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Woman washes her dishes with water collected from the well, surrounded by rubbish and waste. This was also the site where a government minister posed as a sweeper for the campaign, with no real effect.

The reality is the upper-classes have in-home water filtration systems, the middle-classes protect their health by visiting water ATMs, using filtered water delivery systems or drinking from hand pumps they know are deep enough to get fresh ground water. The poorest, lacking in awareness, often have the shallowest hand pumps and on top of that don’t have piped connections in their homes, so have limited options than to consume unsafe water.

The future ambition of the government is to provide filtered water piped to every home. This is their long term goal, safe water being ubiquitously provided and chargeable through tax and water meters. This sounds the perfect solution, but the reality here almost makes this impossible. Firstly, many can’t afford tax, many are ‘informal’ or ‘unregulated’ and therefore not eligible for government water supply and many families in informal settlements do not have the pipe connections to enable them their rights anyway. This means they are often overlooked and brushed to the side, but morally even ‘informal’ or ‘illegal’ residents are still citizens of India. This agenda perfectly exemplifies the stratification of rights and citizenship widely commented on within geographic literature.

In order to get a piped connection, one ‘informal’ family member told me she was asked to pay a bribe to the municipal commission which she can’t afford. Everyone here must pay that, she said, unless you know someone high up who can help you. With this mentality prevailing the governments long-term goal of piped filtered water will still suffer from a leak in the system, of those it deems do not have the rights, the money or the connect paper work to be eligible.

While the Clean India Campaign may be reported as a huge success, bolstered with celebrity pictures sweeping streets before getting back into their cars, the extent to which it has trickled down through the many layers of governance to reach those who need it most is questionable. Whether it has extended the right to safe water to those who did not have it before is questionable. The ATMs which have been set up in the city are in the richer residential areas or on pilgrimage routes, with companies making a healthy amount of profit from plugging the failures of the governments water supply.

This profit driven filtered water system seems to suit those in power or those running the businesses at the moment. Even if piped safe water is on Modi’s radar, it may not be on everyones in the governmental system. Even so, neither ATMs nor piped water seem to be providing those without rights their human right to safe water as it stands. With two and a half years to go, I’m sceptical the government will succeed while the mentality of corruption and second-class rights for second-class citizens prevails.

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