The Narendra Modi government launched one of its ambitious projects soon after it assumed power - Swachh Bharat. It was a scheme mapped out for a cleaner and healthier India. It was rightly welcomed by all sections of the society. But even after months of detailing and deliberations, some of the basic lapses in the project now make me wonder where it is heading to.
Let's get to the realities first. The dictum "prevention is better than cure" applies to all fields. It is better to prevent a village or town from becoming unclean rather than spending time, effort, and money to make it clean again. In this respect, one of the first steps the government had to undertake was to install waste bins in public places, which would discourage the familiar practice of dropping litter and instead encourage the not-so-familiar practice of depositing waste material in the bins.
Swachh Bharat finds a place in the IAS syllabus, which is good news. But a farsighted government should also have given instructions to add the details of the project in school curricula and create responsible citizens for the future. Unfortunately, this is followed in very few states only at the moment.
I live in Thiruvananthapuram, a city that finds itself among the top ten places on the Swachh Bharat ranking. The waste management system in the city came to a standstill when the government agencies stopped the collection of garbage from residential areas a few years ago due to a dispute over the improper and unscientific waste disposal methods the corporation had adopted.
People then started to dump waste in public places at night, so much so that several residential associations set up closed circuit cameras to collar those who dumped waste in their areas. The corporation, the state government, and the elected representatives including the Members of Parliament all blamed each other for not having a proper waste management plan in place.
Even the corporation admits today that only 60 per cent of the problem could be addressed through the decentralised waste management practices like pipe compost, which they have adopted to overcome the problem. The reality is the feat achieved by Thiruvananthapuram has nothing to do with the Swachh Bharat project. Waste from industries, commercial establishments, restaurants, markets, and shops are still a worry. That being the case in a city that ranks high on the list, I cannot imagine the condition of the places ranked sub-hundred.
I know Swachh Bharat is not just about domestic waste management or addressing public litter. It is also about creating awareness, promoting healthy sanitation practices, and involving private sector participation in capital expenditure, operation, and maintenance. It is time to evaluate the initial benefits of the scheme, but unfortunately, most of them start and end as figures and charts on paper only.
Most recently, the government has started to levy a cess of 0.5 per cent on continual services to generate funds for the project. A scheme such as Swachh Bharat needs high initial investment and comparatively low sustenance costs. In the first place, a cess is a fixed rate of charge irrespective of this consideration. Since privatisation is considered, why cannot the government bear a part of the cost and run a self-sustainable system by collecting nominal charges from the beneficiaries, without an additional cess on services?
Inventing new tax plans on continual services to generate money for new schemes is not a good idea. This means the government needs to find money for the cleaning campaign outside of the current tax system. A responsible government should first study and identify fund lapses in other schemes, improper utilisation of funds, surplus funds, and one-time tax heads to route money to new schemes. The most important of all is the collection of tax from defaulters.
A government loses credibility if it is not going to do any of that, but instead is trying to put additional burden on taxpayers to generate money for new schemes. Government wins when its people become happy to contribute to schemes that have perceivable benefits. It cannot happen by imposing charges on continual services, which only ensures an unstoppable added liability. If the government is still short of funds, it should consider introducing a one-time or a two-time tax in a year on the continual services availed for the respective month.
The Swachh Bharat cess is a prescient warning that we might soon see cess on continual services to generate funds for Digital India and OROP schemes too, that may take the service charges to more than 15 per cent. It will only make the public give a cold shoulder to ambitious projects. And that's not good news for our economy or development.