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Invoking Gandhi, Modi vows to 'Clean India' by 2019. Is that possible? (+video)

Prime Minister Modi required bureaucrats to clean toilets and sweep today, the national holiday for Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. Poor sanitation causes India to lose 6.4 percent of GDP, the World Bank estimates.

Outside of New Delhi's largest train station heaps of garbage lie in the streets and in front of nearby shops and restaurants. In one corner, a sign reads "Deluxe Toilet," which is actually a filthy public bathroom.

A modern public toilet will open today, a railway official says, on the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationwide "Clean India" campaign. It is a five-year bid to modernize sanitation by installing toilets, sweeping up dirt, and whittling down trash mounds. 

Mr. Modi kicked off the program today by sweeping filthy streets in the capital. Across the country, over 3 million government employees were required to spend their day, a public holiday, sweeping and scrubbing. Today's holiday marks the birthday of late independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who famously called on Indians to take responsibility for cleanliness.

"After so many years of independence, do we still want to live in filthiness? Can't we resolve this much?" Modi asked, after sweeping a street. The government has pledged that everyone in India will have access to a toilet by 2019 and called on individuals to contribute by volunteering 100 hours a year to cleaning. 

“It is a fun day," said one government official cheerily, as he cleaned the national media center. Others were resentful that they were forced to clean streets.

India's daily waste 

Dumping trash by the road and defecating in public is not uncommon across much of India. Indians generate more than 55 million tons of solid waste every year, according to the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

More than 500 million people defecate behind bushes, in fields, or by railway tracks, according to a 2012 World Health Organization report, one of the highest rates in the world.

The costs of such practices are high. People are exposed to diseases. Women defecating in public can be at risk. In May two teenage girls relieving themselves in a field were raped, then killed.

There are also economic costs, according to the World Bank. In 2006 the organization estimated that India was losing 6.4 percent of gross domestic product annually because of people missing work or school due to ill health from poor sanitation. 

New Delhi is struggling to safely dispose waste. Even at religious sites like Nizamuddin shrine, waste is routinely dumped into rivulets or the streets. People live uncomplainingly alongside heaps of uncollected, fly-infested garbage strewn on the streets. In nearby slums, kids play amidst dust and garbage, while pigs and street dogs feast on rubbish piled high by the road.

“Nizamuddin used to be green and clean neighborhood,” over 100 years ago, says Ajmal Khan, a local resident. “Now, it is the filthiest.” 

A toilet in every school 

Modi first debuted a cleanness campaign in his parliamentary seat of Varanasi, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage city on the Ganges River, after he was sworn in as prime minister in May. He pledged $330 million in his first budget for cleaning the Ganges.

Part of the "Clean India" campaign is a pledge that every school will have separate toilets for boys and girls by October 2015. Over 100,000 government schools do not have toilets for girls, causing many to quit school when they reach puberty. The $10.1 billion project is supposed to provide sanitation and sewerage facilities to over 36 million households in the first phase.  

His cabinet has approved the plan. The central government has earmarked $2.4 million for the project, and expects to get additional funding from corporations and international development organizations, according to the BBC. 

Modi's instructions to his ministers, officials and people to sweep and clean latrines echoes Gandhi's own views that everyone should carry out tasks that in India are traditionally associated with people from lower castes. During India’s freedom movement against British rule, Gandhi personally cleaned his latrine and asked his followers to do the same.
 
"Let us create a clean India and place it at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi as a gift for him in 2019," Modi said in parliament in June, referring to the proposed celebrations for the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi.

Herculean task?

Modi is the first prime minister to speak about Indians' poor sanitation, lack of toilets, and habits of littering and spitting. Even during his visit to the United States last week he repeatedly talked about the campaign. 

But improving cleanness and sanitation is easier said than done in India: Its growing population and greater wealth has created more garbage, which goes largely uncollected. 

Modi’s government is not the first to start such campaign. In the previous government, the minister of drinking water and sanitation, Jairam Ramesh, shocked many when he said that toilets are more important in India than temples. He asked women not to get married into families which do not have toilets in their homes. But that campaign was mostly limited to awareness programs. 

“This is a daunting task,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement. He says millions of tons of rubbish are generated every day from homes and factories but India's creaky sanitation system lacks treatment plants to dispose of it. “You cannot limit the whole sanitation system to toilets. You need infrastructure to ensure complete sanitation.”

India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan agrees, but he says ordinary people have to play a part in the clean-up by cleaning up their own litter.
 
“If people realize how important it is to keep their surroundings clean,” says Dr. Vardhan. “That would make a huge change.”

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