On Gandhi's Birthday, Prime Minister Modi Launches 'Clean India' Campaign: Children's Lives at Stake
October 3, 2014 • 7:44AM

Wielding a broom, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself launched a "Swachh Bharat," or "Clean India" campaign on Thursday, on the national holiday marking the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. "We reached Mars. No prime minister or minister did it — it was the citizens, the scientists who did it," Modi said.

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"So can't we create a Clean India? I am not talking politics.... This is beyond politics. All the governments in this country have made one or the other effort to do this work. Several political, social and cultural organizations have made efforts in this direction. I greet all those, who have worked." This campaign is not just for sanitation workers or the government, but for 1.25 billion Indians, Modi said in his speech Thursday at India Gate in New Delhi. "Is cleaning only the responsibility of the sweepers? Do citizens have no role here? We have to change this mindset."

Modi said that this campaign is the best tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, who promised us freedom from slavery. Two things Gandhiji never budged from, Modi said, those were "freedom" and "cleanliness". Gandhiji gave us freedom, but what have we given him back in return? Modi exhorted. Then he called on the population to clean every corner of the country. He has pledged to clean up the nation by 2019, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That will be our gift to Gandhiji, Modi said. Modi visited the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi this morning, and then went to an area where sanitation workers live, to start sweeping himself.

PM Modi's invocation of Gandhi, a crusader against discrimination by caste and religion, as well as for cleanliness and freedom, is all the more remarkable, since it goes against his political background among Hindu nationalists. Gandhi, peering through his glasses, will be the logo for the new campaign.

There is no "either-or" between India going to Mars and providing essential sanitation and clean water and food: that is a matter of life and death for its citizens, especially the millions of vulnerable Indian children, who are the nation's future. Truly cleaning up India will require massive infrastructure investment, especially in using advanced technologies to clean up severely polluted surface water, groundwater, and land.

Briefly stated, while India has significantly reduced its infant and child mortality rates — with Modi's state of Gujarat achieving well above the national average of 30% reduction in recent years — still, almost one quarter (24%) of all the world's children who die every year before they reach the age of five are Indian. Figures vary widely, but the UN estimates that some 6.3 million children under five die each year; about 1.5 million are Indian. The mortality rates are much worse in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, but the huge numbers alone — almost 27 million children are born each year in India — means that the Indian death toll is by far the highest. The main causes of child deaths worldwide are pneumonia, responsible for 18% of deaths, followed by diarrhea (11%). Unclean water is, of course, the primary source of diarrhea as a killer of infants. Diarrhea was responsible for 13% of child deaths in India in 2010, according to UNICEF.

According to India's 2011 census, some 53% of households in the country don't have toilet facilities. In rural areas, it is almost 70%, and in some states, such as Jharkhand, Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh, 78% of rural households have no toilet. People have to defecate and urinate in open areas, including in fields where food is grown. Millions more, who live on city sidewalks in Kolkata, Delhi, and other cities, must use the gutter. This situation spreads intestinal diseases, which often cause malnutrition in children, by leaving them unable to properly digest food. Some 48% of India's children suffer from some level of malnutrition.

India has a huge unclean water problem. One of Modi's earliest commitments after becoming Prime Minister was to make it his mission to clean up the badly polluted Ganges River. In cities, including the capital, every household or apartment building has to be its own water purification facility, boiling the available tap water to make it potable. For the hundreds of millions of poor, it is not even possible to boil their water.