For Gandhi, Sanitation Meant A Lot More Than Just Cleanliness

Posted by Sumit Jha in Society
October 24, 2017

“Uncleanliness of the mind is more dangerous than that of the body. The latter, however, is an indication of the former.”

This quote by Mahatma Gandhi truly summarises the importance of sanitation for the mental and physical well being of an individual. Mahatma Gandhi realised the importance of sanitation very early on.

He performed scavenging work to prove that without a clean and healthy surrounding, we would not develop as a nation. He even took cleanliness to the level of spirituality and declared cleanliness as next to godliness.

Villages and rural society have been at the heart of Gandhiji’s ruminations. He repeatedly stressed the need to look back towards our villages to understand the true soul, character, nature and mental setup of India. That is why our villages always remained at the focal point of his contemplations about India ever since he entered public life.

In addition to occupying a central place in his concerns and musings, villages from the foundation of the India of his dreams. So naturally, if we want to assess the extent to which his dreams have been translated into reality we would have to evaluate how strong this foundation is today.

What was the condition of our villages on the parameters of cleanliness? What was the experience of Gandhiji who extensively toured the different regions of this country? He commented that “Instead of having graceful hamlets dotting the land, we have dung heaps. The approach to many villages is not a refreshing experience.”

Village sanitation was one of the paths that lead to Poorna Swaraj. This is indicative of the significance attached to cleanliness in Gandhian thought and philosophy.

Now the question arises – Why are our villages in such a disgraceful condition? Gandhiji cited the reason of ‘”alienation between the physical labour and intelligence” behind why “we have become careless about our villages.”

Gandhiji was struck by the duality of Indians about cleanliness. They discriminate between personal and community hygiene. He expressed in one of his writings that Indians probably lead the world regarding personal hygiene. But he has also underlined the paradox that when it comes to cleaning our villages or the surroundings, the position is just reverse stating that, “people will keep their own homes neat and clean but will take no interest in keeping their neighbour’s home clean.”

This miserable condition is a result as well as evidence of differentiation between ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘collective responsibility’. According to Gandhiji, “(the) lack of collective responsibility has turned our villages into dump yards.”

In Gandhiji’s eyes sanitation of public places on the community level is as important as cleanliness on a personal level. To make our lives disease free, cleaning of our surroundings through community participation is indispensable.

A mind trained in the modern way of thinking might find this categorisation awkward. Why not just link cleanliness with health and a sense of duty? But such imagery is quite acceptable and commonplace from the awareness point of view regarding personal and communal hygiene. Such images provide a bigger canvas in terms of tackling the abuse of water resources.

Sanitation for Gandhiji is not confined to health only. He links it with the entire environment. Waste and flith affect the whole environment. They also contribute towards the tilting the ecological balance. All living organisms have to suffer due to environmental pollution.

A person who does not cover his excretions is liable to be prosecuted, even if he resides in a jungle. It is clear that spreading filth and grime is not a pardonable irrespective of its location – whether it is done in a densely populated area, village or town or a remote jungle. To call this offence a crime against humanity and God shows how seriously Gandhiji took it. He was not confined to expressing concern over lack of sanitation in villages. He suggested measures as well to tackle this menace.

The beauty of the Gandhian thought on the issue of cleanliness lies in self-reliance. It does not require outside intervention. According to him, maintaining cleanliness on personal and community level should be everyone’s duty and religion.

Villages of Gandhiji’s dreams were spotless, clean and self-reliant. The village and the village society that finds repeated mention in his musings are the work of imagination of Gandhi’s dreamland.

The idea of healthy sanitation infrastructure substantiates and supports the environment on which it is dependent and vice versa. A country with commendable sanitation facilities will constitute not only healthy environment but will also contribute to overall growth.

A community based approach at rural level especially can generate better health and environmental yields. Cleaning of Thames and Elbe could not have been possible without the collective quest to have a clean and healthy environment which, of course, calls for behavioural change.