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Modi's Clean India Campaign: Don’t Waste the Opportunity

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Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister (PM) of India, launched a Swach Bharat (Clean India) campaign on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.  Senior government officials, politicians and Bollywood actors were seen holding brooms in their hands cleaning neighbourhoods and getting photographed. The twitterati was abuzz with excitement. The campaign was filled with images and messages. The PM aims to have a Clean India by the time of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019. The campaign is timely but will it be effective.
India generates more than 150,000 tonnes of waste every day and is projected to be the largest waste generator in the world by 2030. Open dumping and open burning of waste is rampant in large cities. The health and environmental impacts are well known - improper waste management cause vector borne diseases as well as pollution of ground water. At the same time waste management provides livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of people. Estimates suggest that Delhi alone has 150,000 people whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on waste. Is waste management a problem or an opportunity?

The Government of India launched a $20 billion National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM) in 2008. A key component of the NURM was to improve solid waste management. The first round of the NURM funding cycle is over and the results have not been very encouraging. Part of the problem with the approach was the focus to identify formal private concessionaires who would be responsible for waste management. It was assumed that the private sector would be successful where the government has failed. The PM’s campaign is one of the indicators of limited results of the NURM. So what can be done different?

Waste, much like its composition, is a complex challenge. The starting point for understanding the complexity of the problem and associated challenges is to recognise the multiplicity of actors, interests, technologies and narratives. The complex interplay between the actors and their interest and how they play out under different narratives (and technologies) is critical for any intervention. A stark example is the uneasy relationship between the large numbers of informal recyclers and the local government responsible for waste management. In most cities, although the informal sector provides key services for waste management it is not a part of the “formal” waste management narrative. By not resolving this uneasy relationship, and attempting to privatise waste management, the local governments have shifted the burden on to the formal private sector. At the same time, the informal sector has struggled to find a stable role in formal waste management.

The Clean India campaign’s success would depend on its recognition of the multiple actors and interests which would drive or block its implementation. This recognition is critical because these actors bring in different skills, capacities and finances which would be important for the implementation of the campaign. No one actor would be able to make the campaign successful. The alliances which would be crucial for the success of the campaign would be composed of actors with different skills and interests. The informal sector with its widespread collection, reuse and repair networks would like to save its livelihoods. The formal private company with access to finance for setting up state of the art infrastructure would be interested in maximizing its profits. The city manager with the ability to convene various interests and actors would be interested in a clean city. The critical element would be to identify the diversity of actors and interests and develop city based approaches. The Clean India campaign, much like the NURM, might have challenges to deliver what it promises with a one size fit all approach. Also, it must learn from the experiments which have succeeded in involving the informal sector in formal waste management in cities like Pune, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Delhi.

Mr. Modi’s campaign has tried to portray the individual in a city as a potential driver for a Clean India. However, the efforts of a motivated citizenry would need the support of an infrastructure that facilitates behaviour change. The campaign provides an opportunity to start thinking afresh about waste management. And critical to thinking afresh is to understand the political economy of waste.

Ashish Chaturvedi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, UK.

Date: 9 October 2014