Precaution is the only cure for the new strain of coronavirus. As precaution, what doctors advise is basic hygiene, apart form social distancing. Sanitation and cleanliness are among the humblest of the civic virtues, and it’s easy to underestimate their significance. It needed a Mahatma to attach the utmost priority to them. In South Africa and in India, his historic campaigns always began with or ran parallel to the question of sanitation and hygiene. ~ Ram Nath Kovind, President of India.

Mahatma Gandhi always valued cleanliness and sanitation. India attained independence under his exemplary leadership. “Sanitation,” he had once said, “is more important than independence”\ Cleanliness is most important for physical well-being and a healthy environment. For Gandhi it was not limited to the body and environment. Cleaning of the soul was the ultimate goal of any human being. He firmly believed in the proverb: \Cleanliness is next to godliness. We can no more seek God\s blessings with an unclean body than with an unclean mind.\ He spent his entire life in the act of cleaning the self and soul, and he did this by applying his self to public and social services. He wanted to see Bharat Swachchh ~ clean and cleansed. Gandhi was a practical idealist.

He never did or said anything that he had not practised, and he also never expected another person to do anything which man did not believe in. His greatest quality was to walk his talk in every way and at every level. Moreover, he was introspective as well as self-critical. Certain anecdotes and events of his life point to the rare qualities of the man. Gandhi was then hardly 12 when he saw his family members dealing with a person named Uka, the \untouchable boy\, who used to clean toilets and the courtyard. His mother, Putlibai, instructed the children of his family, including Gandhi, to take a bath in order to be clean if by chance they touched or got touched by Uka. If any \touch\ happened in school, he should touch a Muslim to become pure again. Gandhi failed to understand the stipulation. He did not like it and even argued with his parents over this issue. He argued with his mother, \Uka serves us by cleaning dirt and filth, how can he pollute us? I shall not disobey you, but the Ramayana says that Ram embraced Guhaka, a chandal. The Ramayana can’t mislead us.\ Putlibai could find no answer for his argument. Thus in his early childhood he felt deeply hurt by the way his countrymen treated sanitary workers. It prompted him to act resolutely all his life for the removal of untouchability.

His relentless campaign had jolted the system to its foundations. Cleaning and cleansing of the body and environs was not adequate. To Gandhi cleaning of the soul was the ultimate goal of his campaign for Swachchh Bharat. He was in South Africa early in 1904. Indians were forced to live in a place called \Old Coolie\ in Johannesburg. The location was very dirty and unhealthy. The municipality did little or nothing to clean it up. Incessant rain for over a fortnight had made the condition worse. Gandhi feared an outbreak of black plague. His worst misgivings were confirmed. Many Indians working in the mines were being rescued. Some of them were dead and some others were dying. Gandhi wrote to Dr C Porter, Medical Officer of Health, Johannesburg urging him to inspect the location urgently.

There was no hospital nearby. Nor there was time to take the patients to hospital. On reaching the spot, Gandhi convened a meeting with the community. Funds were raised and a temporary hospital was set up in a vacant house. Gandhi and his team risked their lives to save several lives. The epidemic was contained to the extent possible. Gandhi worked with the Indian community to improve sanitation. Moreover, cleaning of the toilets, which was considered to be the dirtiest of jobs, was voluntarily taken up by Gandhi himself until it become an integral l part of the whole process of sanitation. Gandhi 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. In Tolstoy Farm, the inmates managed all sanitation work. Gandhi learnt scavenging in South Africa. His friends there lovingly called him the \great scavenger\ to which he replied, \Everyone must be his own scavenger.\ From South Africa, Gandhi visited India for the second time in 1901-2 and attended the Congress session in Calcutta where he found \no limit to insanitation.\ A few latrines were stinking as the volunteers refused to act. Gandhi himself cleaned the latrines. Even some delegates used the verandah for defecation and again he cleaned the place. The volunteers were astonished but none came forward to assist him.

Years later, when Gandhi become the guiding star of the Indian National Congress, volunteers formed a bhangi squad in the Congress camps where for once the Brahmins worked as bhangis. Two thousand teachers and students were specially trained for doing the scavenging at the Haripura Congress. Gandhi described himself as a bhanghi and said he would be content if he could die as a sweeper. After his final return to India in 1915 from South Africa, his interest in the various aspects related to the prevailing state of insanitation and lack of hygiene grew progressively in content and scope. As most Indians then lived in villages, he started paying special attention to \village sanitation\. During the Champaran Satyagraha (1917), Gandhi took the sanitation work on a priority basis, with a set of volunteers. He tried to make one village ideally clean, swept the roads and courtyards. Two years before his death, Gandhi stayed in the sweeper\s colony in Bombay and Delhi to share the same lodging and partake of their food. But he was then too old to carry out the task of cleaning. He said, \I don\t want to be reborn. But if I have to be born, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition.\

The Mahatma believed that we are trustees of Mother Earth. But we have relentlessly transformed the planet by raising temperatures and sea levels, destroying biodiversity and polluting the atmosphere. Nature has every reason to retaliate against destructive human activities. Indeed, the real reason for the recurring catastrophes is the abuse of Nature. The outbreak of Covid-19 is Nature\s proactive response to the suicidal behaviour of homo not-so-sapiens. If we cannot learn to stop ripping apart the gown of Nature in the pursuit of short-term gain, this could be our final hour. The words of Al Gore, the Nobel Laureate and Vice President of USA, come to mind, \Can\t you [ Trustees] hear what Mother Nature is screaming at you?

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)