Collective sanitation as practised by Mahatma Gandhi

Priya Desai
Monday, December 29, 2014 - 14:28

By Shobhana Radhakrishna

Collective cleanliness  
 
As I grew up in the Sewagram Ashram founded by Gandhiji in 1936, the picture that is etched in my mind is of our joyous participation in the collective cleaning drive in the Ashram. Oh, what joy it was for us children to walk with our own jhadu (broom), tokri (basket) and a little khurpi (shovel) and  phawada (spade) and  march out in  teams to our allocated area to take part in systematic community sanitation for three quarters of an hour each morning under the leadership of our elders. The time that we spent in cleaning the surroundings, especially the toilets, are one of the happiest memories of my life. Everything became so clean and the night soil was composted into pits that turned magically into Sone khaad, used as manure in the farms.  The habit of cleaning the toilets has continued even today and it is with great pride that my family gets involved in this task.
 
For centuries, perhaps from the feudal ages or even earlier, sanitation was considered to be a mean activity in India. The job used to be done by the members of a particular caste of people who were treated differently. Although every mother does the cleaning of the children and women sweep the household, cleaning of streets and latrines were left to the so called untouchables.
 
Even as a child, Gandhiji could not accept the idea of untouchability. When Dedhabhai came to clean the toilets in the Gandhi household in Porbandar, his mother Putli Bai forbade Mohan, or Moniya as she used to call him from playing with him. It was unbearable to Mohan who for once could not comply with his mother’s orders.  Dedhabhai and Mohan became friends. Many years later, he told Dr. Ambedkar that he was wedded to untouchability much before he was wedded to Kasturba. His tireless campaign against untouchability had undoubtedly shaken the very foundation of the system. However, untouchability was not eradicated from the country. Even today untouchability is present despite Gandhiji’s campaign and Dr. Ambedkar’s constitution and laws.
 
Phoenix Settlement
 
Gandhiji began cleaning the toilets in South Africa as well. Ever since he established a community in Phoenix (now an Indian township northwest of central Durban in South Africa), he made cleaning of the campus a common activity for everyone. Cleaning of the toilets, which was considered to be the dirtiest of jobs was voluntarily taken up by Gandhiji himself until it became a natural part of the whole process of sanitation.  
 
In Sewagram too, the collective sanitation became a fine art and developed into a scientific activity, when most of the members joined the activity and some of them became leaders in planning and organizing the activity for the whole community. Everyone, from Gandhiji to the little ones in the Ashram used to carry the basket on their heads!
 
Experiments with different types of latrines were also conducted in the Ashram to make the cleansing process free of offensive smell and to use night soil for fertilizing the farms. It developed into a process that made it both hygienic and economically productive.  But perhaps the most important dimension of the process was the social one. A task that was abhorred by the higher caste Hindus was turned into a daily ritual by Gandhiji in his Ashram.  One of Gandhiji’s methods of introducing his Ashram life to newcomers was to allot the task of cleaning the toilets. It was both a test of their willingness to change their lifestyle and an act of initiation in the Ashram way of living.  
 
Once Srimanarayan, a young educated youth from London School of Economics had come to seek an audience with Gandhiji in the Sewagram Ashram. He had come with big dreams of changing the Nation; eagerly awaiting his turn to tell his ideas to Gandhiji. On the appointed day of his meeting, even before he could utter a word, Gandhiji with a smiling face and soft voice instructed him to join the collective sanitation for which he was ready to leave. My mentor, Narayanbhai Desai was a teenager at that time and was responsible to perform the role of the senior partner to the beginners. He told me that it was most interesting for him to see the novice passing through almost a mental crisis in the earlier stages. His task was to present them the process in as pleasant a way as he could!  
 
The process
 
The sanitation duties would rotate from time to time giving the Ashramites experience in various processes and preventing them from being bored. Preparing some of the implements such as brooms and preparing compost-pits were also part of the community sanitation activity. Community sanitation was Gandhiji’s revolutionary method of social change, being a constructive revolt against untouchability. When Gandhiji turned his steps towards the villages, the prosperous Indians could hardly imagine what kind of villages captured Bapu’s attention.  From the beginning of his stay in Maganwadi, Bapu had begun going to the adjoining village to clean the faeces from the streets and yards, where people normally relieved themselves. This was no jungle hamlet far from the railway track, but a village right by the city of Wardha in Maharashtra, reminisces Narainbhai Desai.
 
This work had two purposes. One was to encourage the villagers to adopt better habits of sanitation and the second was to show that proper Hindus could undertake such work. The job of ‘sweeper’ was assigned to an outcaste community, to fulfill this function.  But teaching such lessons to the villagers was no easy task, as we are seeing even in today’s times. For months on end the villagers looked on Gandhiji, Mahadevbhai and their companions as ordinary sweepers.  Only, these were better, because they took no money for their work!  
 
'Go over there. It is dirtier on that side.' So said one who had just eased himself, pointing to the spot he had soiled. In the Sabarmati Ashram it was dumping the buckets of ‘night soil’ into compost pits, and to scrub the buckets with coconut-leaf brooms. But here things were different.  When my father questioned him on the good of this work, as it didn’t seem to affect people, Gandhiji said,‘the bane of untouchability is no ordinary blemish on our society. We will have to perform a prolonged penance to remove it.’ Gandhiji was so enthusiastic about sanitation and a stickler for cleanliness that he maintained that if he had his way he would be out there sweeping those roads himself. Not only that, he would plant flowers there and water them daily. Where there was dung of heaps today, he would make gardens. ‘Sweeping is an art in itself,’ he said.  
 
Village sanitation program
 
Health, sanitation and beauty were apparent outcomes of village sanitation programme; Gandhiji wanted to tackle the question of the biological resource of natural fertilizers and disposal of human and animal waste. Perhaps his fastidious habits of personal hygiene were inherited from his mother Putlibai, who was particular about religious observances.
 
Perhaps it is also time we learn from the Japanese on how to keep the surrounding and the neighborhood clean. During my recent trip to Tokyo and Kyoto in October 2104, I chanced upon a group of elderly people in uniforms, brooms and cleaning materials, who were keeping the subways, hotels, rooms, roads and all the public places spic and span, like only the Japanese can. Their dedication, commitment and diligence are something to learn from.  From their childhood, Japanese children are taught to clean. Called o-soji, this is a part of their education.
 
Even the Japanese audience of the recent World Cup matches in football demonstrated to the world how much they value cleanliness. Though their team lost, after the match was over, all of them rose as one and cleaned the stadium as though to do their natural duty of maintaining cleanliness and order all around.  Can we learn from them?  After all, it was just 66 years ago that our Father of the Nation demonstrated to us that cleanliness is next to Godliness.  
 
About the author
 
Shobhana Radhakrishna is an eminent Gandhian who has been involved in constructive activities through the Sarvodaya movement and has been re-inspiring the present generation about the Gandhian ideology for bringing change in the society.  She is the chief functionary of the Gandhian Forum for Ethical Corporate Governance of SCOPE (Apex body for public centre enterprises) and the NGO DISHA.
 
 
Article lead image courtesy India Water Portal: Gandhiji's model of a toilet at Sewagram Ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra.

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