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Author : S.M. Shah Nawaz

India is all set to lead the comity of nations in the times to come with its economy poised to become one of the largest in the world in foreseeable future. The nation is surging ahead with great pace on the path of economic development. However, can we really achieve our goals without meeting the social and environmental parameters? The first and foremost amongst such parameters is cleanliness. We cannot afford to put the filth under the carpet of development.

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Gandhiji visualized cleanliness in three ways – a clean mind, a clean body and clean surroundings. Holding that ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, he once emphatically wrote, “We can no more gain God’s blessing with an unclean body than with an unclean mind. A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city. So long as you do not take the broom and the bucket in your hands, you cannot make your towns and cities clean”.

And on Gandhi Jayanti two years ago, the Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi just did that – he took the broom right in his hands and spurred the whole country into action. Shri. Modi said “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” as he launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in New Delhi on 2nd October 2014.

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The five-year long campaign was launched across the country as a national movement with an aim to turn it into a ‘Jan Andolan’ and change the face of the country by 2019. The countrymen responded very enthusiastically to the call and people from all walks of life have come forward and joined this mass movement of cleanliness.

However, keeping the streets, lanes and by-lanes of the country is not the only objective. There are many more goals to achieve.

According to an UN report, India accounts for a major portion of the over 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation. Open defecation refers to the practice whereby people go out in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water, or other open spaces rather than using the toilet to defecate. Society does not view the lack of a toilet as unacceptable. Building and owning a toilet is not perceived as aspirational. Construction of toilets is still seen as the government’s responsibility rather than a priority that individual households should take responsibility for.

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The challenge is to motivate people to see a toilet as fundamental to their social standing, status and well-being. The practice of open defecation is not limited to rural India. It is found in urban areas too where the percentage of people who defecate in the open is around 12 percent, while in rural settings it is about 65 percent.  Open defecation poses a serious health threat especially to children. The practice is the main reason India reports a very high number of diarrhoeal deaths among children under-five. Children weakened by frequent diarrhoea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition, stunting, and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia. This is not at all surprising that percentage of children in India suffering from some degree of malnutrition is very high. Diarrhoea and worm infection are two major health conditions that affect school-age children impacting their learning abilities.

The faecal-oral route is also an important polio transmission pathway. Open defecation increases communities’ risk of polio infection. Open defecation also puts at risk the dignity of women in India. Women feel constrained to relieve themselves only under the cover of darkness for reasons of privacy to protect their dignity.

The Union Government wants to change the situation completely. It wants to completely eliminate the practice of open defecation by 2019. The work is in full swing for the construction of crores of toilets all across the nation – both in rural and urban areas. With this, the Government is also streamlining and upgrading the sewage system wherever required.

“Educating girls is also my priority. I have noticed that girls drop out of schools by the time they reach class 3rd or 4th just because schools don’t have separate toilets for them. They don’t feel comfortable. There should be toilets for boys and girls in all schools.

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We should concentrate on girl students not quitting schools” said the Prime Minister on the Teachers Day two years ago on 5th September 2014, few days before he launched the mission. Therefore, Swachh Vidyalaya concept also became an essential component of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

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To encourage people to take the Mission forward, Prime Minister Modi on his popular radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’, has been constantly lauding the efforts of organizations and individuals who have been contributing positively towards the Swachh Bharat Mission. And this too is having the desired effect.

The Government can provide the required infrastructure and undertake various campaigns to spread awareness about the importance of cleanliness and it is most earnestly trying to do so but it is the people of India who need to adopt the concept of the mission wholeheartedly and make necessary behavioral changes in their attitudes and approach to make this ‘Jan Andolan’ a grand success. What we really need to do is to make cleanliness, a part of our primary school curriculum, and we need to practice it throughout our lives.

*Author is a senior journalist of long standing and is the Editor of an Urdu fortnightly.

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