Was Mahatma Gandhi's often quoted phrase, "cleanliness is next to godliness," kindly encouragement - or an uncharacteristic curse of frustration directed at his countrymen? If cleanliness is next to godliness, the national pastime of littering must make India the least spiritual place on earth.
For that reason, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's August 15 speech was admirable because of his call to action on sanitation and cleanliness. I am not sure I know what to make of his call to end communal strife for ten years, given the provocative behaviour of some of the Sangh Parivar that escaped condemnation from the PM. But his message on sanitation was as direct as one of those Surf ads of yesteryear.
On current evidence, though, India will likely not be cleaner by Gandhiji's 150th birth anniversary in 2019, the evocative deadline the prime minister has set for the national project. What is needed is a massive change in behaviour and it is hard to see that happening: large crowds at the Red Fort were moved by Modi's speech - but still left the grounds strewn with litter. On Thursday, the Economic Times did an expose on the government building that houses the ministry of housing, drinking water and sanitation, which has the responsibility of building the 400 million toilets Modi has promised in five years. If you are reading this over breakfast, please turn to another page forthwith. "The stench from a washroom adjacent to an under-secretary's office is unbearable. The staircase is laden with waste and the walls are smeared with betel-nut spit, but what troubles a visitor most is the overwhelming smell of urine," the ET's Vasudha Venugopal reported from the frontlines of our battle for sanitation.
If maintaining clean and functioning toilets is a challenge in ministry buildings, the problem is multiplied in villages, especially given the scarcity of water. TCS and Bharti Airtel are to be applauded for pledging a total of Rs 200 crore to building new toilets but they will have to tread thoughtfully through the social quagmire they are likely to face. Arghyam, the non-governmental organisation headed by Rohini Nilekani, has recently done research that shows that although women and teenage girls in villages want toilets, the family purse-strings, connections to the panchayat that administer central government subsidies for building them are controlled by men. Counter-intuitively, men are the constituency to rally behind the cause and the way to do that is to argue that building toilets is a way of protecting the honour of the women in the family - which, in a sense, is what Modi did on August 15.
Building 400 million toilets that work is a tall order but curbing our national propensity to litter is a lost cause. Jogging recently in one of those beautiful mini-parks that abound in New Delhi, I saw a resident bark at the security guards to order the park's gardener to clean up something before he drove off in his diesel-spewing SUV. This was just a couple of weeks after Modi had raised the issue of sanitation on the campaign trail, so I hurried over to eavesdrop. We are never happier as people than when we are telling someone else how to do their job and the security guards were no exception. The gardener pointed out that the litter was outside the park. If he had to clean up the colony, he said reasonably, he would never have time to do his job. And back and forth the discussion went for ten minutes.
Having taken to picking up empty bottles of Pepsi, tiny bottles of Blue Riband gin and stray snack wrappers as I do my rounds in the park, I did my little bit that day as well. I am the only one who uses the park on hot summer mornings, so that only seems fair. On my way out, I took a detour to see what had offended the imperious neighbour and prompted the long debate. Nestled on a pile of dry leaves were three Frito-Lay potato chips wrappers.
Commentators who said the prime minister should have concentrated on loftier subjects during his Independence Day speech have completely missed the point. Gandhi exhorted his countrymen not to spit and to clean their own toilets, but we still seem to struggle with these notions.
As incomes rise and snacks like Haldiram's and potato crisps become more widely available and affordable, the country is getting messier every day. In a previous job, I travelled to Africa and the poorer parts of Asia on assignment. I was also on a secret mission: to find a country with cities and towns filthier than India's. Not even Nairobi or Phnom Penh came close.
One of Jawaharlal Nehru's biographers, Walter Crocker, recalls watching Congressmen at a tea party in the 1950s falling on the food like famished schoolboys. They then threw the banana skins on the floor. He reports that Nehru, who called himself "the first servant of India" decades ago, calmly picked up the banana peels. Crocker, who had long been a diplomat in India, characterises the Congressmen's behaviour as typical of people who are used to having servants. He was right, of course. The problem is that whether we are rich or poor in India, our long ingrained social hierarchies mean that cleaning up after ourselves is always someone else's problem.