Why Swacch Bharat Type Schemes Will Fail in India

File photo of Oshiwara river, Mumbai. Source: Wikipedia

File photo of Oshiwara river, Mumbai. Source: Wikipedia

There has been a lot of talk lately by the Union and Delhi governments about cleanliness and pollution in India, and schemes have been initiated to deal with the problem. In Paris, the Prime Minister has expressed his government’s commitment to checking pollution.

I do not want to sound overly pessimistic, but in my opinion these schemes and statements will only remain claims on paper, and will not be implemented on the ground. Let me explain.

Governments may announce any number of schemes in this connection, but implementation of the schemes has to be done by the bureaucracy and police, which have unfortunately become largely corrupt. So the money poured into these schemes will largely end up in the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats and police.

I remember once hearing a case in the Supreme Court about cleaning of the Jamuna at Delhi. During the hearing it was revealed that Rs.1400 crores had already been spent on cleaning the river, but it was as dirty as ever.

Some years ago I had been to Varanasi, and met the late Virbhadra Mishra, the bade mahant of the famous Sankat Mochan temple (he had been a Professor of engineering in BHU, and his son, also a Professor in BHU is now the bade mahant ). He told me that 30 sewage canals discharge into the river where people from all over India come to bathe. I again went to Varanasi recently, but found the situation unchanged. Varanasi is as dirty as ever, despite being the Prime Minister’s constituency.

My friends who had been in the I.A.S. (they are all retired now) told me that when they joined the service in the 60s and 70s, the IAS officers were by far and large honest, and one could pinpoint the odd corrupt officer. Today, they said, the position is the reverse. Schemes like MNREGA have become a sham due to massive corruption.  Laws like the Environment Protection Act, Air Pollution Act, Water Pollution Act, etc have become a farce due to corruption. It is much cheaper to bribe the pollution inspector than fix an effluent treatment plant. I submit that this will also be the fate of the cleanliness drives initiated lately.

In Western societies, too, there is some corruption, but it is only at a very high level, and it ordinarily does not affect the common man. Corruption there takes such forms as multinational corporations giving bribes to top politicians, generals or bureaucrats of underdeveloped countries to get contracts, etc. But in North America you cannot offer a bribe to a policeman if he catches you violating some traffic rule. If you attempt to do that it will be a second, more serious, offence. Similarly, you cannot bribe an income tax official or other officials there. But in India corruption exists at every level, for example, in registering a sale deed, getting mutation in revenue records, getting an FIR registered, getting permission from a municipality to build a house, tax matters, etc.

There are very strict environment protection laws in America, England, France, Germany, Japan, etc and these are strictly observed. But that is because these countries are already fully industrialised. Cleanliness must be maintained at very high levels in industrialised societies, otherwise they cannot function. In these countries children are taught by their parents from childhood to put the garbage in garbage bins, and not just throw it on the road. In these countries rivers and the atmosphere are largely clean. One can drink water from any tap, and it is as pure as mineral water.  Air and water pollution is very strictly controlled.

On the other hand, a country like India is only partially industrialised, and hence the feudal backward mindsets in people still persist. Almost everything is polluted, from the air ( as in Delhi ) to water to foodstuffs. Without water filters, boiling etc, it is not possible to drink water anywhere; it could make you sick.

In a feudal society one keeps one house clean, but throws garbage and litter outside the house. That is why heaps of garbage lie everywhere on the streets of India. Also, in recent decades there has been mass migration of people from the rural to urban areas looking for jobs. These people coming from rural areas still have the feudal mindset. They throw litter anywhere, and often ease themselves in open spaces, as they do in the villages. How can this mentality be changed instantly ? It will take several decades.

I submit the following: first, corruption is the normal feature of the transitional period when a society (such as India’s) is passing from a feudal, agricultural stage to a modern, industrial stage. Second, it is only when the transition is over and India becomes a fully industrial society, like that in North America or Europe, that the environment laws will be strictly enforced, and corruption considerably reduced. This, in my opinion, will take about 15 to 20 years more in India.

This needs to be explained.

A feudal, agricultural society has relatively stable social and ethical values. In contrast, when the process of industrialisation begins, things become topsy-turvy. In this transitional period, before the process of industrialisation is complete, two things happen. First, old (feudal) moral values disintegrate, but a new moral code does not immediately come into existence. So there is a moral vacuum, and the only value is how to make money by hook or crook. Second, prices start shooting up, while incomes are broadly stagnant (or rise much slower than the price rise). For both these reasons, corruption becomes rampant. To maintain one’s lifestyle and to keep up with the Joneses, one must supplement one’s regular income, and this is only possible by corruption. Since the old moral code has largely disintegrated, and a new moral code has not come into existence, there is little check on one’s conscience to prohibit wrongdoings.

I am not trying to justify corruption. I am only presenting a scientific analysis to show that corruption is inevitable in a transitional society like India in which industrialisation has commenced, but is incomplete. Historical facts support this conclusion. For example, there was rampant corruption in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries when industrialisation was going on but was not complete. Sir Robert Walpole, who was the first prime minister of Great Britain (from 1721 to 1742), openly used to say that he could buy off any person, including members of parliament. John Wilkes and Junius attacked the corruption of the governments of the Duke of Grafton (1768-1770) and of his successor, Lord North. Similarly, in America too there was a lot of corruption in the 19th century when the process of industrialisation was going on. The administrations of Presidents Grant, Harding, etc were notoriously corrupt.

Upton Sinclair’s famous novel, The Jungle (1906), exposed the health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meat packing industry of the time. This promoted the US Federal government to introduce tough sanitary and hygiene regulations. When Western societies were passing through their transition from feudalism to the industrial era their roads, rivers and atmospheres were highly polluted. Anyone who has studied conditions in England, for instance, knows that till the mid 19th century, roads in England were muddy, the Thames full of sewage, and the air full of smog.

It was only when the process of industrialisation was broadly completed that Western society  became largely corruption and pollution free. A new ethical code emerged, and people in the West are now relatively much more honest in their dealings than people in underdeveloped countries. Anyone who has been to the West and has interacted with people there can confirm this.

In view of this analysis, I submit that pollution and corruption will continue in India for another 15-20 years or so but will significantly disappear when the process of industrialisation is complete after this period, and the mindset of our masses has changed. Till then we may have any number of schemes, but they will remain on paper only.

Markandey Katju is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of India

  • Ess Arc

    This is exactly why i dont want to pay a Swachh Bharat Cess. That money will only go into the pockets of some Babus and contractors.

  • Raja2000

    Industrialization has nothing to do with cleanliness. Read history – history of pollution and sickness in London, Manchester, etc., before the advent of large scale sanitation in the western societies. Then talk about the likely failure of the cleanliness drive in India.
    Schooling in India is pathetic with very little ‘civics’ content. People grow up with little comprehension of all that citizenship entails.

  • forsanity

    Justice Katju links everything directly to industrialization. But I believe it is not industrialization per se, but the fruits of industrialization that brings a change in the morals and attitudes of the population. That is, when a country is industrialized, there is more money to go around, people move from sustenance based livelihood to a better livelihood where there is disposable income available with a majority of the population. So as the per-capita income goes beyond a threshold (genuinely and reasonably well distributed, not the oligarchic model) people begin to care about their surroundings. That is because when people have disposable income they begin to demand better quality of life. As long as people are existing in a hand-to-mouth basis, which is what a majority of Indians are in, they are not bothered about a clean environment, better road conditions, better transportation etc. Today the middle class in India demands all these, but their voices are weak. We need more people to move into the middle class so that the demands of the middle class can become the norm. For that we need faster economic growth. I am convinced that economic growth for the sake of economic growth itself has so many benefits for the country that we need to attempt it. Of course, we cannot do it with the model we adopted in the earlier Congress regime where there was a huge asymmetric distribution of wealth. We have to have many safeguards against that. But we need to grow the economy by hook or crook to grow the pie as big as possible so everyone can take a share. The intangible benefits of that will be huge. Justice Katju is perhaps alluding to that when he harped on industrialization, but economic growth is the key to a cleaner and corruption-free India. At the same time, his prediction of 15-20 years is too short. It will take a lot longer. China, with all its authoritarian might took 30 years (91980-2010) to get where it is today. India, with its democratic model will take a lot longer.

  • Vijaya Krishna

    Mr Katju must be a keen student of history and sociology . He has aptly applied Durkheim’s theory of anomie to Indian society .

  • G. Nagraj

    I love this article because every issue has been blamed on someone else. We Indians are very good at it. The ONLY REASON SWACCH BHARAT WILL NOT WORK IS BECAUSE OF THE COMMON INDIANS. A corrupt policeman is not the reason why we spit on the roads. A corrupt IAS officer is not the reason why we dump our household garbage on the road. A corrupt policeman is not the reason why we jump signals. The reason we are as we are is because of us and no one else

    • Anna

      True there are certain social and individual behaviours that can be changed but for the garbage problem to be truly resolved, bureaucracy needs to play a role too. For instance, many citizens segregate their household waste in Bengaluru, but the garbage collectors often mix them again and dump the waste in a landfill. Till the time they implement a better process, for instance composting the food waste and recycling the dry waste, there would be limited gains from the common man segregating the waste. Also, the governments should impose strict rules against littering and implement those rules. I often see shopkeepers dumping their waste in the rain water drains in front of their shops. This has to stop. Hence, the government machinery needs to start working to resolve the systematic issues for this initiative to truly succeed.

  • vijay

    the trouble with the argument in this article (IMO) is that we have the experience of others to guide us. The advantage of being late to industrialisation is that we could, potentially, leapfrog over at least some of these problems that others have had before us. The sad thing is that we aren’t.

    I think the failure of imagination in this is not finding ways to work around the moral vacuum, and make incremental improvements. Instead we have grand plans, with grand failures.

  • Manoj Tyagi

    many type of reason swach bharat abhiyan fail
    1. every department think safai karamchari without given equipement and hitech machinery sanitisor goods clothes mask/and new machinery he can clean all the city

    we such proivde better equipment and dresses and facility for improvement of safai karmchari
    polythin to be banned
    plastic bottle just like water/coke etc banned installed RO WATER IN EVERY 100 MTR AND COKE MACHINE IN 100 MTR
    and wait next

  • sanch

    It’s the people and the people only that change keep India clean . The mentality of the people is the only hurdle in keeping it neat ; corruption is a different issue and it has many hurdles but for a cleaner India physically requires change in mentality and that comes in with better Education . So in my opinion heavy educational reform implementation and imbibing such etiquette within the population seems to be the only way around . Fines and heavy tax imposition must be there but it won’t help .

  • Rohit Sinha

    Change ourselves,everything will change automatically.