Mahatma Gandhi had the vision all along that a country simply politically free means little unless it is free of its own filth
All through his life and work, Mahatma Gandhi insisted on the cleanliness of conduct as well as of the mind. Just as violence for him meant both action and also thought. The idea of sanitation for him was not merely theoretical. For Gandhi, purity was also a physical reality. It meant revolutionary ideas like asking the ‘higher’ castes to clean up their own latrines.
If Gandhi ever touched Uka, the scavenger at their home, his mother, Putlibai, made him take a bath. But Gandhi would argue with his mother: “Uka serves us by cleaning dirt and filth, how can his touch pollute me?” The plight of the people who cleaned people’s houses but were subjected to harsh discrimination in society disturbed him to no end. He quoted the religious texts to explain how Lord Rama had embraced Guhaka, a ‘chandal’ who was considered a ‘low’ caste. In the first issue of ‘Harijan’ Gandhi had published a poem by Tagore titled ‘Scavenger’.
But the people who were in the habit of viewing sanitation merely as daily bath and cleaning their house ‘at the cost of littering up the neighbour’s’, would take a long, long time to understand him. The irony of the Indian mind-set was, and probably still is to some extent, that to clean-up is not their job.
Much before he became an iconic figure in India, Gandhi had continued to voice his childhood concern as to why should someone else be responsible for our filth. In South Africa, Gandhi had set an example by doing the scavenging work himself. He tried convincing the Indians there that one lesson to be learnt from the West was to keep our surroundings, particularly our toilets clean. In contrast to the Western counterparts, the Indian people’s living quarters were smelly, littered with rubbish and filth. In Johannesburg, Gandhi spoke to other Indians about the need to clean their own toilets regularly to prevent disease and bad health. During his visit to Tolstoy Farm, he found that the inmates were themselves responsible for cleaning jobs. Later in India, Gandhi pointed out that the homes of the so-called ‘untouchables’ were much cleaner because of this very practice of taking responsibility. Many homes of the rich and the educated were cluttered, dusty and full of unseen bacteria, leading to various diseases simply because the inhabitants were not bothered.
After his return to India, during the Congress sessions in Calcutta and the other cities, Gandhi continued to place weight on the subject of sanitation even as he discussed the national and the political issues. For a country that prides itself on spirituality, the temples and pilgrimage sites were found shockingly filthy.
Gandhi pointed out the irony in ignoring the smelly, slippery streets outside temples in Benaras, Calcutta and Hardwar. While visiting universities like Benaras Hindu University and Tibbi College in Delhi, Gandhi spoke to students about the need to keep our famous cities clean. Many times Gandhi’s morning prayer- meetings included a ‘sermon’ on the need to clean up one’s latrines!
The state of water bodies and sacred rivers too worried him. Although there was great respect in their hearts for rivers, temples and pilgrimage places, people rarely thought about keeping them clean. People used river banks for open defecation, bathed and washed, and drank the water from the same place. In towns and villages, it was commonly seen that drinking water was obtained from ponds in which the cattle were washed. The village well was good but required periodic cleaning to remain so. All such precautions were rarely taken by people. Gandhi’s close associates like Miraben and Sardar Patel among many others carried on his work wherever they went. At Segaon, Miraben spoke to the public telling them about the important link between sanitation and the meaning of dignity. At the All India Compost Conference in 1948, the leaflets that were distributed said that human waste if recycled well was like gold: “Compost is a matter well planned”.
Nehru was one of those who cleaned toilets in Gandhi’s ashram. Gandhi’s respect for those who kept the surroundings clean was such that he dared the Brahmins to boycott him for welcoming an untouchable couple to live in the Sabarmati Ashram. In the Congress Party, there was a proud group that called itself the ‘Bhangi Squad’.
God was not responsible for mankind’s diseases, said Gandhi. If the environment was kept clean, diseases would stay away. Instead of blaming their fate for illness and physical suffering, if they were cautious, they would stay healthy. Therefore, those who cleaned toilets were not outcaste but ’Purifiers’, Gandhi wrote. And he saw himself, he said with pride, first and foremost as a ‘sanitary inspector’!
Typically bad ‘Indian’ habits of spitting on the streets annoyed him. He also criticized the routine way in which people urinated on the streets. Blowing the nose anywhere too is a habit that spreads diseases . Epidemics spread in villages and cities due to such practice which is seen as normal. In ‘Harijan’ he constantly published articles about such matters.
On Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Bharat Swachhta Abhiyan was launched by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. It was a tribute to the man who had recognized the value of sanitation a century and more before the world woke up to see it. Gandhi was the man who did not waive the subject aside as less important when the country was struggling for political independence.
Today WHO and UNICEF and other organisations are repeatedly underlining the association between sanitation and economic progress. Gandhi, the visionary, had worked all his life not just for his country’s political independence but also its future. He had worked not only for constitutional freedom but also real social equality. He had insisted upon the cleansing of our actions, our minds, and also our toilet which, in an article published in Navjagran’ in 1925, he declared, was more important than our drawing room!
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