What are the reasons for the lack of hygiene and cleanliness in India? Why is it that we, as a nation, fail to keep our streets, water bodies and footpaths clean? Is it the responsibility of the government alone to do so? We litter our streets, dispose off garbage imprudently and avoid all individual responsibility for our actions. We blame state corporations and the government for the squalid conditions of our country.

Citizenship is a two-way street. If we want certain rights and privileges, it’s also our duty to follow certain rules for the betterment of the country. And on this line of thinking, we are sure to encounter some vexing truths, often about our own efforts, rather the lack of them.

In the midst of these miserable circumstances, this seems a pertinent question: Where do we start? How can a common man, not involved in governance or running of any executive or judicial machinery of the country, contribute to cleaning up India? Instead of trying to answer this question theoretically, here is a true story of a man who comes from humble means, and has been playing an active part in the upkeep of his surroundings from a young age.

Shashi Bhushan Singh, or pagla jharuwala as he is called in his village, is a resident of Dumari Kalan in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar. Bagmati zone, an area near his village, was prone to floods each year. Each flood left piles of garbage in and around his village. This caused regular epidemics and diseases till a few years ago. “As a child, I joined a drive started by the block president of the time to curb the spread of air- and water-borne diseases. As time passed, people moved on, but I kept the ‘movement’ going,” says Singh, for whom this was merely the beginning of his long and arduous journey.

Enthused by the changes his work had caused in his village, Singh purchased baskets and brooms with the little money he had and started cleaning the surrounding areas of his village, all by himself. He started appealing to people to join the cause towards healthy and hygienic environment by constructing toilets at home to stop open defecation.

Because of his commitment to and preoccupation with hygiene, Singh has not taken up a full-time job to earn a living to this day, despite having a family of seven, including his wife, parents and four children. “All of them are supportive of my cause. At times, my father gets angry with me and my chosen vocation; this is mostly because, as a father, he wishes to see me self-sufficient. However, my wife is a constant support and has even sold her jewellery to help me with these cleanliness drives.”

eanliness drives.” Having chosen an unconventional path for himself, he was initially shunned by some of the villagers who believed that he was jobless by choice and therefore, irresponsible towards his family. “People of my village tried to shame me initially and named me pagla jharuwala. Few even abused me vocally as well as physically and very few continue to do so even today. But I have always ignored their comments and behaviour,” says Singh.

Notwithstanding the incessant vilification by his critics, Singh continues to work with relentless altruism. He not only worked in his village but even marched to Patna with a broom to raise awareness regarding cleanliness and hygiene. On his journey, he cleaned several public places including hospitals, schools and administrative offices. His efforts have been acclaimed to a great extent: the deputy chief minister of Bihar, Sushil Modi, praised his tireless work in his village and across the state. Singh has since travelled to other districts and blocks of Bihar to motivate and has joined various cleanliness drives.

However, a regular income has always eluded Singh. With rising costs of living, it has become increasingly difficult for people like him, who are immersed in their work towards the betterment of society, to eke out enough finances to incur personal expenditure. “Initially, my parents used to support me financially. My father would give me some money and I would manage with that. But, I have a family to take care of; so currently, I also install/service water purifiers in nearby villages and somehow manage my expenses. But, it is tough to make a living when you are focused on cleanliness drives with all your heart and mind.” A few of his co-villagers have been devoted to helping him achieve his goals by providing him garbage trolleys, masks etc. They also try to spread awareness about his work to a larger audience, which helps him to connect with influential people, who help him in his cause.

Singh even tried to meet PM Narendra Modi twice, but failed. “If I get to meet the prime minister,” says Singh, “I would like to offer him some humble suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness of the Swachh Bharat Mission.” He stresses on the importance of educating the rural masses on the importance of cleanliness, saying, “In our Panchayat system, we should delegate two-three local teachers or representatives to take care of responsibilities concerning hygiene, who will, in turn, educate the younger generation.” He also said that he would request the prime minister to grant remuneration to people like him, who give up personal ambitions for the greater good of society, so that they can continue their work.

To better understand the significance of someone like Singh in a country like ours, here are a few statistical facts about India:

  • India has such a massive lack of toilets that almost half of India’s population defecate in the open.
  • In India, around 60 million children are stunted due to malnutrition, weak immunity and diseases; which is to say that the environment in which the average child grows up is hazardous, as is the quality of food they consume.
  • India generates around 62 million tonnes of waste each year, out of which only 15 per cent is processed or recycled.

The question of the hour, however, is: Can we really continue in this way any longer? India is in dire need of a radical change and in a country like ours, with a population of around 1.3 billion people, no such change is achievable without an ‘active’ role of its citizens. It is time we start working towards improving the quality of life of our children and the future generations.

Let’s set a precedent now, before it is too late for if we do not start making changes, soon we will be on the point of no return. Shashi Bhushan Singh, a man selfless in his work, taking on the environmental crisis single-handedly, is a leading light.

As Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now, says, “You are responsible for your inner space; nobody else is, just as you are responsible for the planet. As within, so without: if humans clear inner pollution, then they will also cease to create outer pollution.”