For various reasons, Mahatma Gandhi continues to be in the news, as he should be. The India that he was so passiote about and thought over so deeply, has been evolving fast in the nearly seven decades since his life was cruelly put to an end by a bigot. Among all his messages, the ones on cleanliness are being amplified across the country in what is easily the biggest mission of its kind in the world. Over the past fortnight leading up to Gandhi Jayanti this year, the Central government have been fast tracking the cleanliness campaign with the ‘Swachhta hi Seva’ programme. The stakes are high at this phase, with just a year remaining to Bapu’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019 when the country will be taking stock of how far it has cleaned itself through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that Prime Minister rendra Modi heralded in 2014. The physical target of building 13 crore toilets in nearly 6,41,000 villages spread over 690 districts — though daunting, may actually be the easier one to reach. The really difficult part will be to achieve the target of bringing about behaviour change, to convince people that defecating in the open is shameful, that the toilets once built should be maintained and not used as storerooms. With a galaxy of celebrities being roped in to help fight this battle in the mind, Bapu’s diehard conviction about cleanliness as a non-negotiable part of good living continues to be even more relevant to 130 crore Indians (set to become the largest population five years hence). Dismayed by his countrymen’s filthy habits ingrained over centuries, the Mahatma had railed against the continuing defilement of sacred Ganga ‘in the me of religion’. Putting sanitation at a higher pedestal than political independence, he had called upon each countryman to be his own scavenger. With his dream of India developing into a village republic that would be an exemplar of sustaible living, the Mahatma still put sanitation as a top priority in his ‘ideal village’. “An ideal village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation... The very first problem the village worker will solve is its sanitation,” he had written in 1937. Even if Indians in near future learn to maintain the lavatory at home as cleanly as the drawing room, as Bapu had once exhorted, the real challenge before the country is to keep waging the cleanliness war by innovating and investing hard in scientific waste disposal and sewage magement. The country already generates some 6 crore tonnes of garbage every year; metros and cities are running out of landfills, where the garbage is simply dumped without segregation. As for human waste, nearly four-fifth of it is dumped straightway into water bodies or rivers or allowed to contamite groundwater — due to the near total absence of sewage treatment systems. Clearly, a bigger war is looming after 2019 on the sanitation front.
Another issue on which Mahatma Gandhi had strong views was the crucial role of labour not just in the country’s economy, but in ensuring a healthy society as well. There have not been many takers for his views even in governments of free India after 1947. After all, labour for the Mahatma was a holistic concept — it had to be provided to youths if unrest was to be avoided, machines could be used to make labour fulfilling but not to supplant it, while labour also satisfied a spiritual yearning in man. It is hardly any surprise that successive governments, since the 1980s in particular, have been near helpless in the face of rapid technological changes and automation in industry. With 120 lakh youths joining the country’s workforce every year, the ture of the challenge can be gauged. Lately, the country’s economy has been domiting the headlines, what with growth rate slipping to 5.7% in April-June quarter of the current fiscal. The NDA government is being pilloried for demonetisation, as well as for ‘clumsy introduction’ of Goods and Sales Tax (GST). Economists are bemoaning the downturn in private sector investment, decreasing industrial production, rising current account deficit and inflation creeping upwards. But above all, the failure to generate adequate employment opportunities can hurt this government, just as it did its predecessor. India’s high growth story had begun during UPA rule, the momentum continued in the first three years of NDA rule, and may well revive after hiccups due to ongoing reforms. But even if the pendulum swings back to 7.5% and above growth after 2019, the ghost of jobless growth will likely haunt the country for years. Prime Minister Modi has rightly identified skilling youths as a major challenge, but this mission too has stumbled badly in implementation, with a government-appointed panel recently noting that while Rs 1,500 crore has been spent so far in skilling over 18 lakh youths under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yoja (PMKVY), the job placement rate was dismal while private vocatiol education institutions ended up pocketing the money. As it happened with earlier skilling programmes, PMKVY too has suffered because the labour and skill needs of various sectors in the economy were not accurately factored in beforehand, apart from the short-sighted focus on just short term skills. It shows that the government will have to go for a paradigm shift in its campaign to meet its target of skilling 40 crore youths by 2022 in meaningful way. Mahatma Gandhi’s warning about the need to put work in every pair of willing hands is again relevant here.