Modi's toilet talk is nothing short of revolutionary

Amrit Dhillon lauds Modi's refreshing approach to skip the lofty talk and focus on what will improve Indian lives - a cleaner living environment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 2:23am

Not even 100 days into the job, India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is proving to be an original. For the first time in decades, a prime minister is telling Indians a home truth: India is dirty because many Indians have dirty habits.

It must be said if anything is to change.

India's villages are pretty grubby but they are nothing compared with its urban filth. A friend calls small towns, particularly those in north India, "toilet towns". While most Indians are scrupulously clean about their person, they think public spaces - even the few feet around them - are not their responsibility, so they litter, spit and urinate with abandon.

A recent visit to Varanasi, the Hindu holy city, jangled the old sensibilities. The squalor is so unremitting that I am prepared to stick my neck out and make a prediction: if the plague ever breaks out again in India (the last time was in 1994), it will be here.

Modi must have glimpsed this dirtiness everywhere during his visit to Varanasi, where he stood for election earlier this year. After becoming prime minister, he returned to the city to thank its citizens for their support.

Instead of pandering to their pride by praising the city's so-called reputation for spirituality, he said the city needed to be cleaned up, along with the Ganges. In fact, Modi keeps talking about cleanliness. The last person who used to talk so much about this was Mahatma Gandhi. Since then, prime ministers have avoided references to dirt and lavatories, preferring to dwell on loftier themes.

Not Modi. He used perhaps the loftiest date in the calendar - Independence Day - to talk about dirt and how shameful it was that half the population still defecate in the open.

Some members of the Indian elite tut-tutted, ridiculing Modi for reducing a solemn occasion to toilet talk. They don't get it. This is revolutionary talk and spoken in a way that ordinary Indians may relate to. For the first time, it is not some rich person talking down to them, nor a politician launching some vacuous sanitation scheme which is forgotten the moment the microphones are switched off.

Cleanliness is a constant theme. One day, he ordered civil servants to tidy up their offices and clear away the clutter. On another, he urged Indians to make India clean by 2019, as a tribute to Gandhi as that's the year they will celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Indians tend to expect the government to do everything for them. Modi has made it clear that cleaning up India is every person's responsibility.

It's refreshing to hear a prime minister talk about the basics. For too many years now, Indian leaders have indulged fantasies of "emerging superpower" status. Far better to have someone like Modi who promises to build a toilet in every government school. Lack of access to toilets causes girls between 12 and 18 to miss around five days of school every month during their periods. For these girls, a toilet is more important than the state of the currency.

Modi should keep banging on about dirt and not worry about the lofty stuff. That will follow in due course. What matters now is to clean up one of the dirtiest countries in the world.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India