Curious minds – young IAS officers’ questions on Swachh Bharat


Since last three years, on Prime Minister’s direction, IAS officers spend three months in Government of India as Assistant Secretaries, after completion of their two-year training period, and before they are posted in districts to start their work independently. I had an opportunity to gauge the minds of these young officers on Swachh Bharat during a recent interaction organised by the Department of Personnel and Training. I asked each one of them – they are a batch of around 180 officers – to write one question they had uppermost in their mind about Swachh Bharat.

Having gone through these questions, the first thing that strikes is that the officers seem to be well aware of the key issues pertaining to the subject. This was more than a cursory knowledge about a subject – signifying that Swachh Bharat (at last) occupies a prominent place in the development agenda of this country. Sure, they have been exposed to lectures on Swachh Bharat in the Mussoorie Academy ( Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie), and have observed its implementation closely and upfront during their district training.

A large number of officers asked whether behaviour change could be carried out in a hasty manner – with simultaneous pressure of achieving ‘target’ by 2019 ? They also expressed concerns on credibility of ODF verification. Of course, they had in mind issues of quality of processes and sustainability of outcomes. Having been exposed to community approach, they see quite well the paradox between policy – that focuses on collective behaviour change; and possible neglect of the same in implementation at some places. ‘Has focus turned back to toilets?’ , ‘Why the subsidy of 12,000 is not done away with?’ – questions like these from the officers raise a red flag and call for introspection. On the other hand, it is also reassuring that officers who will be playing critical role in making their sub-divisions/districts ODF over the next two years are well apprised of the issues and seem to have their head and heart at the right place.

My take on ‘pressure of 2019’ is that while it may seem to be a short time to effect real change, actually it may not be ! Swachh Bharat has been around for three years now – the strategies for accomplishing collective behaviour change are well known now. Drawing from experiences of champions across the States, a Swachh Bharat Idea book, available with the Ministry compiles these strategies ( See Skills for triggering tools are also much more widespread now, and the officers can draw on this skill-set to address their query on ‘How to motivate?’ The programme also has a fair understanding of sustainability : guidelines on ODF sustainability brought out by the Ministry, compiling best practices from across the States is a good referral document, that may benefit the officers ( See The mechanism for ODF verification has also been laid down clearly : and it is for the officer to maintain rigour in verification in his (includes her) district. Given this background, it should not be impossible for a DC or an SDO to make his district/ sub-division ODF within a year, provided he plans his strategy well, adopts the correct approach, builds capacities of his team and keeps an eye on actual outcomes. The role of the State/ Centre in this case will be to constantly motivate him, trust him, allow him innovations, address any bottlenecks that he may be facing, provide him the necessary skills, and expose him to best practices. This will do a greater help than ‘bureaucratic’ reviews and monitoring, which create avoidable pressure on the officer.

Officers also raised issue of difference in approach in different States : Bihar, for example, releases toilet incentive, only after the entire village ward is free from open daefecation. Flexibility for such differences in approach is one hallmark of Swachh Bharat : sanitation being a State subject, it is most prudent to let the States address the problem, the way they consider most appropriate, as long as they are achieving the correct outcomes ! Officers also wanted to know specific measures required for effective implementation of the programme in North East. The answers, they will find themselves, once they are in the field. What is heartening is that they are seeking.

A few officers also questioned focus of Swachh Bharat on toilets, and optimal design of toilets in high water table areas. Some wanted to know how Swachh Bharat could be a success in water scarce areas. As to toilet focus of Swachh Bharat, let me mention that this was a conscious thing inculcated in rural Swachh Bharat – for a reason. The idea of Swachh Bharat – especially due to the Prime Minister’s picture of broom in hand – meant different things to different people. Especially to the urban (opinion making) population, Swachh Bharat came to be identified as removal of kachra. In the rural areas however, Swachh Bharat was an opportunity to clean that shit that was invisible to the eye – it was distant from the village by the side of the stream. Away from media, it would never have caught eye as a public issue. However, it was precisely this hidden shit that was killing children – around 1000 a day in India! Therefore, it was important that Swachh Bharat be used to clean up this mess – since the main objective of the programme was health improvement. Many States concurred with this approach – they knew the danger of an early focus on solid and liquid waste – it would have transformed Swachh Bharat into a naali (drain) construction programme – something that was in much demand by the local politicians. Having said this, after two years of focus on ODF, Swachh Bharat has started to lay emphasis on SLWM ( solid liquid waste management) as well. In fact, during the initial years, there have been successful pilots of SLWM in States such as Tamil Nadu ( Coimbatore), Maharashtra ( Nanded) , Himachal ( Mandi) and Haryana ( Karnal). These are now being scaled up. In some sense, the fight in the initial years of Swachh Bharat was not a fight between toilets and SLWM ; it was between a supply-driven approach and community empowering behaviour change approach. As is well known now, the challenge in SLWM is also not technical – it is more managerial and community ownership/participation related. An agni pariksha of community in ODF prepares itself to tackle the SLWM more effectively. Like the sarpanch of Rampur ( Khagariya) , 1st ODF village of Bihar announced in the State level workshop – ” a year ago when we took up the ODF work, no one could believe we would actually achieve it. Now having made exceptional efforts for it and having achieved it, my confidence has increased. I assure you now – in one year henceforth, my village will not have any standing water”. No where in his speech, he was asking for funds or support from anyone. He was just expressing his resolve – borne out of positive potential unleashed in the ODF process. This is a real change.

As far as toilet design is concerned, it is clarified that Swachh Bharat does not promote any particular design, and is satisfied as long as the toilet ensures safe disposal of human excreta. In fact, prescription of designs from higher levels kills the local innovation, that is against the spirit of Swachh Bharat. The twin pit toilet has been found to be cheaper and more effective, and has therefore been prescribed specifically by some States such as Chhattisgarh. This model is not promoted as a cheaper and poorer version of the elitist septic tank : rather as a more effective technology. For most areas, this model should work. Even in some high water table areas, experts prescribe variants of twin pit on a raised platform. These technologies are well known and can be used. A greater risk to my mind has arisen at some places due to neglect of safe horizontal distance between a toilet pit and a water source ( handpump/ well). Problem also arises because of unsafely built twin pits – with pits 10 feet deep : since people believe smaller pits would fill up early. It is here that work is required for public awareness. (See tips on technology here ). For real water logged areas/ very hard rock areas, other technologies/ variants are available.
The question regarding success of Swachh Bharat where water is scarce is also asked much. It has now been proved that open daefecation in India is not linked to low water availability. Dean Spears from RICE institute has proven by research that India daefecates outside much more than many other countries with much lower water availability. This is not to say that water is not required for cleaning : what is being said is that rural toilets with high sloping pan do not require as much water as would inhibit their use. Even flushing is not expected in twin pit toilets. Plus, even in water scarce areas, if a family is arranging water for all other purposes – deinking, bathing, cleaning the house, cleaning the dishes – a 2 litre for toilet can also be arranged (or saved). The crux is that open daefecation is more of a socio-cultural issue that has nothing to do with less water. Now, this is not to say that water issue is not to be addressed. As young officers, you will be poised to address both sanitation and water issues. The difference is that while open daefecation problem will have to be addressed through a sociological behavioural change solution – water supply will require a professional service delivery. The latter per se will not address the issue of open daefecation. On the other hand, you can marry the two by positively incentivising those villages that become ODF by providing them water supply on a priority. This is also the official policy.

The social sensitivity of these officers was revealed when they queried about issues such as caste-based safai karamcharis, manual scavenging and technological innovations to prevent manual cleaning of septic tanks/sewers. These issues, being multidimensional, span beyond Swachh Bharat : and it will be great if Swachh Bharat takes lead in/ becomes the fulcrum for addressing these upfront. Officers also seemed apprised about the wider dimensions of Swachh Bharat, when they talked of measures such as banning of Pan Paraag (chewable tobacco) or showed concern on recent urban floodings ( in part due to choked water bodies).

Officers also had queries about urban Swachh Bharat. They felt that the component of public participation in the Swachh Survekshan questionnaire was skewed and affected fairness of survey. As an outsider, i resonated with the unease about one aspect of Swachh Survekshan. My fellow panelist, with due courtesy to him, explained at length, how in three months prior to Swachh Survekshan, their cities could ‘expedite’ ODF, with the result that most of their cities figured in the top 100 or so. It reminded me of the erstwhile NGP ( Nirmal Gram Puraskar) scheme of rural areas, which greatly increased the momentum of rural sanitation, and also tilted the programme in favour of collective change; however evaluations later showed poor sustainability of those results. The lesson was that efforts were made for the ‘award’ and therefore, lost its sanctity to an extent. An effort done, for its own sake, without an external carrot or stick, sustains longest. Officers also wanted to know the solutions for crowded slum settlements. Each slum may require a participative exercise in arriving at an appropriate solution, that is acceptable by the community and maintainable in the long run. A newspaper, after a city received ODF reward, mentioned that mobile toilets were made avialable for the slums at the time of Survekshan. The broad point is that evaluation is not a substitute for implementation. A periodic evaluation surely charges up the environment : however, it cannot be a substitute for ‘dirty ground work’ that has to be carried out relentlessly, starting from slums ! One is aware of the heaps of garbage, stagnating water pools and open daefecation on the rail-track adjoining colonies. Talisman will be improvement in these. Ministry of Urban Development may look into these aspects. Finally, the practices of solid waste management usually cited as ‘best’ are capital intensive, centralised ‘professional’ collection, transportation and disposal practices. An officer queried whether there can be equally good decentralised practices. Bang on ! Ministry of Urban Development is already promoting composting. It will be good to see city wide (on scale) successful examples of individual/ locality wise decentralised composting that substitute formal collection by municipalities.

Finally, the officers talked of accountability : with each government department being held accountable for swachhta within its own domain. The inter – Departmental convergence is critical for Swachh Bharat. These very officers will soon play the role of first amongst equals in district heads if various departments, and buck will stop at them. The ingenuity, grit and leadership abilities of these young officers will be called to test very soon. They have a golden opportunity to bring real change.

A few questions were interestingly different . I close with those.
1. “My mind is clean. So I don’t have any questions” !!
2. “Why don’t we design ‘blue whale’ type challenges for Swachh Bharat?

And this one was serious :

3. “What if we are not ODF by 2019?” 🙂



(Thoughts) On multiple partners, hormones and happiness …


Boy : What re your views on polygamy/ polyandry ?

Girl : I wonder why marry to keep multiple partners

Boy : 😂😂😂😂😂
U re super rebellious : more than the Xhusu tribe to which Nelson Mandela belonged !!

Girl : Was gud fr d times whn ‘live in’ was not discovered
I support live-in

Boy : Does ‘live-in’ allow polygamy ?
I mean multiple partners

Girl : I think only rule there is ur own morality
Depends on d person one is wid i think

Boy : How can ‘one’s’ morality depend on the ‘other’ ???

Girl : Ofcourse it does…relationships r about also wht d othr person wants

Boy : Hmm /:
Heard Ranbir Kapoor saying this once : well, i cannot be committed to someone only because he/she is not treacherous : has to be beyond that !!

Girl : True…but treachery is big…enuf to make cracks in a foundation

Boy : What abt the converse : if there’s no treachery, is that reason enough for rock solid glue 🙂

Girl : Hehe no…

Boy : Hmmm

Girl : In marriages it is about wht d partner wants wht d inlaws want..wht relatives want blah blah blah

Boy : Agree : marriages re more complex
But in case of multiple partners, wd it not again be abt what multiple partners want ?? 😉

Girl : Look at draupadi…guess she took care of each one of thm…
I dont knw any othr account 😛

Boy : Draupadi : Superwoman !
Othr account : Since society doesn t allow n those don t come to light : except perhaps may be some communities ? some Ladakh buddhists earlier days : where a wife wd be married to husband’s brother as well !

Girl : Ya …iknw it exists..jus tht i dnt hav info

Boy : So perhaps when society allows multiple partners, it’s easier ??
( Nelson Mandela s father had 4 wives )

Girl : Ur readin his bio?

Boy : Jus started : n that set me thinking 😂😂

Girl : Lol
May b u shud pick on d subject tht intrsts u now

Boy : Any suggestion ?

Girl : Hehe on polygamy/yandry?…gt to chk

Boy : 😊
Also read somewhere ( not sure if medically true) : that phy attraction to a man induces release of ocytocin in a woman that makes her want his emotional n non platonic support too ! True ??

Girl : Blame it on d hormones!

Boy : Hehe it s alwaz the hormones 😂😂 in few yrs all philosophy wd anyways be clear !

Girl : 😹 m sure it is d hormones@

Boy : So, till the time hormones r there, what’d be the right conduct ? ( the original ques 😳)

Girl : U in a very thoughtful mood 😳

Boy : Thoughtful ? Hope not intimidating ..Sorry !! Ve faced this allegation many times ‘ तुम सोचते बहुत हो’ 😔

Girl : 😆

Boy : ( And there s a philosophy, there’s no right or wrong – so let’s rephrase the ques : till the times hormones r there, what conduct wd make u happy ?

Girl : Yeh sochna padhega…i believe one shud always go wid d flw

Boy : 😊

Girl : 🤔 now thtz my thotful smiley

Boy : But u said relationships r also about what the other person wants : how can this, and going wid the flow go together ?

Girl : Therz no bindin to this thot
Itz jus an opinion
N itz no rule either
One shud go wid d flow of ones own belief n opinions
Now thtz my view on it
To each his own

My opinions r waitin to b dished out

Boy : Your opinions remain safe and non judged 🙂

Girl : Thtz d best thing ‘non judged’👍

Boy : Not sure when i ll be sure of my opinions :
To leave a thot, here’s a list :

Girl : Oh yesss plz share

Boy : 1) Perhaps, the best is to not have relationships, since they bind. In other words, be a Buddha. But we have hormones, and we re lesser mortals. Though aspiring for that !
2) In relationships, due to hormones n flows, multiple partners is ?natural
3) Since (today’s) societal norms do not permit multiple partners, purauing same is stressful : since one has to lie : which is heavy on heart !

Soln :
1) Be a Buddha
2) Change societal norma to suit your convictions ( r your convictions same as that of majority ?)
3) Give damn to societal norms; live with some lies !


1st two are ideal !
3) is jugaad !

And yes, if we re ving time for chats this long : means we re underworked !!

So , 4) is immerse in work/ passion stronger than hormones : and then, may be that ll lead to Buddha as well 😉 😂

Girl : 😂
Like the solutions
Underworked ? It is sundaaaay
A relaxed one at tht

Boy : 😂😂😂


Spread the word : short videos and long impact @swachhbharat


If i am a motivator employed in Kalahandi district of Odisha, or a Zilla Swachh Bharat prerak assigned to Nashik district, and i have heard something about CLTS (community led total sanitation) and triggering, but want to learn more, why should i have to wait for a formal training to be organised in my district – something that may (or may not) happen one year hence ?

Swachh Bharat has come some way from where it started. While challenges still remain, a satisfying part is a general acceptance of the following facts :
1) Swachhta is not about constructing toilets, it is about behavioural change
2) Swachhta is (should be) looked upon as a collective public good : therefore we should aim for open defecation free (ODF) villages, rather than a mere increase in number of latrines.
3) Behavioural change does not happen by merely bringing about awareness ; it requires a more closer inter-personal communication, facilitation of a dialogue with the community, bringing about a self-introspection and facilitating appropriate decision by the community : a process known as ‘triggering’ in the CLTS ( Community led total sanitation) parlance.

While the statements 1) and 2) above can be accepted more easily; 3) requires some immersion or at least witnessing the ‘triggering’ process. However, even after acceptance of ‘triggering’ tool as useful in behavioural change, the challenge of disseminating the skill is daunting, given the scale of work. Lack of motivators skilled in this facilitative technique is a major impediment in accelerating swachhta. In order to accelerate trainings in these skills, ‘virtual’ trainings have been attempted. With some drop in quality (as anticipated), these have been able to reach out to more participants and to allow inter-district cross-sharing as a bonus. However, on their own, they have not emerged as a magic-wand solution to skill propagation. At a policy level, an attempt was also made to 1) train State level agencies, so that they can cascade trainings down to district level 2) review guidelines, to allow States/districts to engage a trained agency/professional directly. The former had some advantage in spreading skills – some States ( for e.g. Tamil Nadu) were able to build in-house resources who are now being used to carry out further trainings in districts. Some States got the trainings, but did not put mechanisms to deploy those resources. The latter – review of guidelines – is a good enabling provision. However, its utility now depends on the quality of organisations/individuals empanelled. If they have themselves to be trained, before they can impart further trainings, then the advantage has been lost.

Separately, there is one initiative that has been talked about, but remains to be implemented. How to use technology to ‘demystify’ the basic skill-set required for triggering and behavioural change? Harvard has some online tutorials where key lessons are imparted through short videos interspersed with key lessons and also questions for evaluation. Video modules are also used effectively in other development sectors (for e.g. education) for training of teachers. In sanitation, while some skilled organisations have made such videos, that they may be using for their own trainings, and which are also available publicly on you-tube; to the best of my knowledge, such videos are not available in the form of a comprehensive module that describes various steps of ODF achievement, with narration by experts plus demonstration videos from actual field.

The content for creating such video modules is widely available. Besides the knowledge base with practitioners of community approach in the field, UNICEF, through Knowledge Links has prepared draft modules based on best national/international community approach practices of sanitation. Based on these modules, and capturing actual happenings in the field, customised 5-minute videos can be prepared explaining different strategies for achievement of ODF. It is important to associate actual practitioners (champions/trainers) in the making of such videos – and not relegate it entirely to big media units, who have the technical skill for media, but lack the understanding of sector. Keeping in view the end users – Collectors/CEOs/ officials; grass-root motivators; non-officials – the content can be appropriately customised. Also, given the rapidly evolving nature of innovations and triggering tools, these videos/ modules can be constantly upgraded.

Most users have a smart phone or access to internet. And they should be able to go through these video modules on their own. The video modules can be uploaded on the knowledge management platform of Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin Each State/ district can then be made aware of the availability of such video modules for use in district-level trainings or individully by any motivator. The videos can also be shared through social media platforms like WhatsApp. States can be encouraged to develop similar video modules in local language – with locally shot demonstrations – to be of greater use to grass-root implementers. The video modules may be later developed into full-fledged tutorials/e-learning courses.

Such videos will bring best practices and clarify basic principles to the army of motivators and implementers across the country. The users can use these video modules to get useful ideas and evolve their own innovations. That’s how knowledge will grow.

Authentic/standard video module(s)from horse’s mouth – Ministry – will dissuade half-baked knowledge on the subject abd bring greater clarity on the holistic perspective of sanitation – as opposed to a trouble-shooting approach.

Swachh Bharat : Reflections from Mussorie Workshop


It was certainly a pleasure to listen to such conceptual clarity – Jashpur’s presentation on sustainability – and a satisfaction that Swachh Bharat has travelled long in three years. When the programme began , issues like sustainability, taking along marginalised, innovations were practically non-existent in the field. May be Jashpur is exceptionally well, but conferences such as these reinforce ideas such as community approach and behavioural change as the norm now and will definitely influence the rest. I found the concepts like dephasing, special involvement of marginalised and promoting natural leaders/ SHGs particularly impressive. Such workshops for cross learning – not ‘reviews’ – may be a regular ( monthly) feature at State level as well ( may be already happening in some States).

On sustainability, as CEO Jashpur said, its built- in from planning stage is critical. There were days when ODF/ Nirmal Sarpanches would feel disheartened – that none cares for them once they are Nirmal. The necessity of continued bond of 9 months (period significant !) with a village after it has become ODF stands out. It is also good to note ( and to bear in mind !) that ODF plus/ sustainability activities have to be primarily village-led ( eg swachhta polls by school children to catch recalcitrant open defecators!) and administration supported – rather than administration-led and village-supported.

On ODF Verification – the approach assumes importance. Like Robert said, it’s a corrective approach and not a punitive one. The verification teams are not policemen – yes their standards will be high ; but the community should view them as guides and not critics. What should be supreme – this approach of guidance ; or accountability marked by certification? The two are not totally contraindicatory; but i guess primacy has to be of trustful environment than cold accountability. One also needs to ponder on levels of verification as well – नीचे से report नहीं आयी – is unacceptable. There can be one good level of verification – done by a well trained team, that should suffice. I am not sure if raising the level of verification up to State level significantly increases quality.

Of technology and likeness for septic tanks, there does appear to be a strong case for going bolder in BCC strategy for twin pits – making it aspirational as one participant said today. The distinction required however, is not between twin-pit and septic tank : it is between a safe and an unsafe toilet. And for that, demonstration of toilet construction in a village goes a long way in clarifying technology and promoting safety.

On MIS, there were useful and precise suggestions – including bold ones such as having provision for undeclaring ODF. I guess, declaration is a village/ community prerogative and cannot be reversed : on verification, the rigour of verification will reduce chances of having to revert a verified ODF. However, bringing in system of second verification in MIS and initiating it in practice may provide opportunity of unverifying in case of a slip-back. Many other useful suggestions came from participants – perhaps the Ministry can form a committee including the field officers who brainstormed on the subject for pushing through key reform in a time-bound manner (many already underway) and with real time field feedback.

The group on BCC and partial usage threw up issue of National Sanitation Policy : something that has been discussed earlier. What after 2019 is fuzzy ; but beyond goals of Swachh Bharat, sanitation issue will remain pertinent. Clarifying this fuzzy part is not easy – and keeping goals for later can make us complacent now.

The way Swachh Bharat ( Gramin) – especially the community engagement part – has come up can have interesting lessons for other development programmes. In which other programme do you see a Collector/ CEO making it his mission : but more importantly people, not just gram panchayats, but natural leaders participating so heartily in social change. There may also be perhaps lessons for the sister programme, Swachh Bharat ( Urban) , wherein community engagement – especially that in slums – needs to be substantially enhanced for sustainable solutions.

The point mentioned on inclusion of subjects like ODF in school curricula is critical and may be expedited.

The preferred approach in sanitation has been community approach ( derived mainly from the CLTS – Community Led Total Sanitation approach). However, since the programme has (thankfully) assumed high political/ government priority, sanitation, there is an overarching governmental push for the programme. Someone called it GLTS (Government led total sanitation) ! A social change like swachhta may be government initiated; however its sustainability will depend on the extent of community ownership.

MHM – Menstrual hygiene management – is an interdisciplinary subject involving the Departments of education, health, women and child, and sanitation. However, given the reach of Swachh Bharat down to community level, and involvement of SHGs, natural leaders, adolescent girls – it is heartening to note and good to expect that these women swachhta champions take a leading role in destigmatising talk on menstrual hygiene and also pilot/ support good MHM practices in their villages.

The group on issues of marginalised deliberated well on the problems and possible solutions. This is however, a subject that requires greater discussion and brainstorming. A champion Collector, who had successfully implemented community approaches to sanitation in two districts in Rajasthan had mentioned that tribal districts have specific challenges that need to be specifically addressed. A separate national workshop on Swachhta and tribals/ marginalised is long overdue now.

Arushi and many champions like her comprehend reasonably well the capacity building issues – and are spearheading the same in their jurisdictions. However, there still remains constraint of skillful trainers and/or mechanisms for their quick deployment in any district where they are required. This needs to be addressed comprehensively.

Discussions/ Suggestion on media engagement were also interesting. I guess, one approach is ‘hands off’ – you do your work, and let media take a note ( work, good or bad cannot go unnoticed !) There may also be a merit in exposing media personnel to triggering tools by inviting them in training workshops. What Collector Mandi Sandeep Kadam did is also interesting. He taught whatsapp, including sending pictures, to mahila mandals in villages working voluntarily in swacchta. Those mahila mandals in turn, enthusiastically called local journalists to come and see the work they were doing ! The suggestion of Collector/ CEO directly contributing articles clarifying the approach, strategy, achievements, road map and challenges to public at large through print media is useful.

Swachhagrahis ( grass root swachhta motivators) are now being engaged more proactively. The recruitment of these Swachhagrahis is critical to ensure that people with right aptitude and grit get selected. Natural leaders may well to be formalised as swachhagrahis rather than a more formal recruitment. Weaning away old inefficient ones and taking fresh motivated ones is a change management process to be managed skillfully. Karnal did that. May be others too.

Lastly, on IEC, a decentralised ( district) system may be better than centralised (State). State has a role – but the mantra for higher levels is to take up only what the lower levels can’t do !



A day with Dabbawallas : of bonhomie, hardwork, discipline and dreams


Who has not heard of the Mumbai dabbawallas –  in case you have not, may like to see this Youtube link

I had a chance to spend a day with them and see their work closely. Ahilu, the mukadam (supervisor) of Ville Parle group met me at Ville Parle East station at around 9 am. Despite being a Mukadam, he was collecting dabbas himself that day, one of his group members being on leave. ‘हम भी तो पगार लेते हैं, फिर हमें मेहनत करने में संकोच क्यूँ ?’ Ahilu left Pune when he was in his teens, when his father died, to join his cousins/ Uncles who were dabbawallas. Having worked for nearly twenty years as a dabbawalla, he is a mukadam (supervisor) now.

In his interaction with his group, he seemed 1st amongst equals, not displaying any ‘bossism’, but helping out his team members. As we reach the 1st house 15 minutes in advance, the lady of the house asked us to wait for some time. Waiting and having tea, Ahilu invites another dabbawalla over – he later tells that that dabbawalla was also a muqadam, but due to his poor work habits, all his team members has left him now, and he does collection only with his son. Still Ahilu called him over for tea, depicting an overall camarederie between dabbawallas.

We collect dabbas from around 10 houses – being a Saturday, it is less. Ahilu remembers exactly, which house in which building to go to ! Remember, he doesn’t go to these houses daily : he is covering for one of his team members. Which means he knows exactly the route and houses for all the 25 odd members of his team. He says, besides him, two other members of his team know this entire detail by heart, so that work doesn’t stop. In many government offices, it is common to hear , ‘ सम्बंधित व्यक्ति छुट्टी पे है, उस के आने पे आप पता कीजिए’. He is not literate, and does not use GPS. We do. And still (due to that) we do not memorise such information. Perhaps, our dependence on gadgets – and ‘curse of knowledge’ has affected our faculties ?

On other days, a dabbawalla may collect between 10-50 dabbas, depending on the number of customers in the ‘line’ he is allotted. Being owners themselves, entire money collected from the customers belongs to dabbawallas. But this is striking : each dabbawalla takes equal share of the collection of the entire group. I asked Ahilu if collection of each is not dependent on how many dabbas he collects? He said no, and explained why – ‘ किसी की लाइन (area allotted to each member) में दूर दूर ghar होते हैं; और उसे कम dabbe इक्कट्ठे करने में भी उतना ही समय लग जाता है; जिन कॉलनीज़ में ज़्यादा कस्टमर हैं, वहाँ के ज़्यादा dabbe होते हैं जो उतने ही समय में collect होते हैं’. On 7th of each month, the group sits together and the muqadam distributes the share equally amongst them. Each link work towards strengthning the entire chain. This team spirit, between the group, and between other groups, is unique to dabbawallas’ work, and cannot be duplicated through any computer programme.

From 9.30 am to 10.30 am, we collected dabbas. Without wearing a watch, and without any anxiety, Ahilu knew that we (and all his other team members) would reach the designated spot at 10.30 am, where everyone from his group gathers; each having collected dabbas from their respective ‘lines’. The dabbas are collected on the good old ‘Hero’ cycles that seem sturdy for the job. The carrier of the cycle has few hooks on which dabbas can be hung. Some dabbas are tied directly in knot to the carrier, smaller ones are also tied to the handle. Each dabbawalla has two bicycles, one at the collecting station, and other at the distributing station. I saw these cycles kept unlocked outside station, and asked Ahilu, if there was no risk of these being stolen. He replied in the negative. Everyone knows these are dabbawallas’ cycles and leaves them undisturbed. Just as they are allowed hassle free entry in respective buildings, offices etc. They are recognisable by their topis (caps) that are compulsory for them.

Once the dabbas of Ville Parle were collected, they were segregated railway station-wise – those going to Andheri, those to Churchgate etc. Each group member, including Ahilu helped in this segregation. The dabbas were loosely tied together, so that they could be picked up as a group. Even if each dabba weighed around 250 grams ( could be 500 grams to a kilo as well), with 10-30 dabbas on their shoulder, dabbawallas would be picking up 2.5 – 7.5 kg weight. Certainly not an easy task. Each member of Ahilu group picked up the lot of dabbas meant for his designated station and we went to board the train. I accompanied Ahilu to Andheri. We boarded in the general compartment. Ahilu said the dabbawallas have a train ‘pass’.

We got down at Andheri station. Outside the station, there were dabbawallas who had collected dabbas from other parts of Mumbai – just as we had collected from Ville Parle. They kept the dabbas on the road side in groups numbering 1-81. Each number represented the destination for one dabbawalla, where he would deliver the dabbas. Ahilu, from the marks on his dabbas, and even otherwise, knew in which all numbered lots, he had to place which all of his dabbas; a task that he completed in less than five minutes ! He also collected from the numbered lots, dabbas that were to be taken back to Ville Parle – dabbas meant for people working in Ville Parle, but staying in Andheri, and collected that morning by the Andheri group, just as Ahilu’s group had collected from Vile Parle. Being a muqadam, he also took a round to see if his group members (two of them had accompanied him to Andheri) needed any help. The congregation point was a lively place – dabbawallas from different groups stealing few minutes to chat with each other, have tea together, sharing their family issues, financial issues. A dabbawalla had his foot swollen, but happily came for work, saying ‘ घर बैठ के भी क्या करना है :)’ Clearly, it was a big family, big joint family, that interacted willingly and effortlessly. Have been in gatherings of doctors and bureaucrats and sensed a greater bonhomie amongst the dabbawallas than the educated professional groups.

One reason for this bonhomie could be that all the dabbawallas belong to varkari sect, religious people worshipping Vitthal ( incarnation if Krishna), and leading a simple moral altruistic life. Other virtues – hardwork, equality and equanimity, discipline, lack of vices – perhaps also flow from the religious belief. On Ashadi Ekadshi, they take two day leave to go to Pandarpur, place of Vitthal.

From Andheri, we took return train to Vile Parle, and distributed dabbas there. All this was completed pre -lunch. Ahilu takes pride in the fact that dabbawallas always deliver the dabbas right in time – appropriate time before lunch. He mentioned some others tried to imitate their model. One person deployed vehicles for fast delivery too. Dabbas in that case reached almost in the morning – customers did not like that and his business could not establish. After delivery in Ville Parle, Ahilu gets a one hour or so break when he has his lunch. His own dabba – he carries from home ! I bid him good bye at lunch time. I gave him some tip – that he is to share with his group. The tip was well worth the insight, learning and time spent with them. Many discussions amongst the dabbawallas centred around their financial condition – indicating perhaps that this hard work job pays enough to run the house, but may not be too comfortably. However, dabbawallas being mostly illiterate, may not have many other options at jobs. Plus, given the good community feeling, they find the job good. As varkaris, they anyways are contended people.

Post lunch Ahilu would make another trip to Andheri, to return Andheri dabbas and bring back Ville Parle dabbas. Thus, each dabbawallas makes two trips in a day, first to deliver the dabbas at work places, and second to collect the empty dabbas and deliver them back homes.

Everyone’s job is important; but food certainly occupies a prime position. Non delivery of food in time is an emergency – food is that critical. Delivery of wrong dabba is a smaller emergency. None of this happens, thanks to the meticulous rehearsed human system of dabbawallas. In case there is a rare case of indiscipline – not wearing topi, remaining absent – there are fines/ salary deduction : to keep the system running at zero defect and six sigma. Dabbawallas never stop – whatever be the season, whatever be the exigency ! Much of Mumbai eats because of these beautiful people. Ahilu says, we would stop only if the locals (trains) stopped : ‘ट्रेन बंद तो हम बंद’ – in all other exigencies, we are working.

What keeps a dabbawalla moving ? What is his ‘purpose of life’ ? What quality of life is he seeking ? What is his dream ?What ‘newness’ does he yearn for? Day after day, season after season, years after years, his entire youth and well into his old age, he does the same thing – the same routine : collects dabbas, travels by train, delivers dabbas.

He renders the above questions meaningless. His newness is his routine – the routine defines the purpose of his life. What he does, someone has to do. For not just the doer to keep moving – but for the bigger crowd, Mumbai to keep moving, keep eating 🙂 Dreams are not fulfilled empty stomach.

Wash up Mumbai


The Dhobi ghat at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai is a colourful place. In ways more than one. They dye clothes there. They are also a microcosm of splendid life colours.

The Dhobi ghat is accessible to all – unlike the gated colonies, where a guard notes your details and asks for permission from the resident before allowing you to enter. There are people from outside Maharashtra here; many from Uttar Pradesh, some from Andhra, may be from others as well. They came decades earlier in this place which was established more than a century ago by the Britishers. The locals claim, it was originally built with much engineering skill – with rows of small water tanks and piped water supply 24 hours. These tanks are still used – the manual wash with a ‘ वूश वूश ‘ sound exhaled by the dhobi, as he strikes hard clothes on the stone is admirable. Not sure if the machines wash clothes that well ! Many have installed big machines – since they wash hundreds of clothes together and save manual labour. There are also drying machines, dyeing machines etc. One person is boiling starch for application to clothes.

Sunil (name changed) clad in his underwear is a handsome young boy manually washing clothes. He says he is from UP and his entire family has gone to village. He, born and brought up on Mumbai, doesn’t like it much back in village and stays back. His naukar is on leave today and therefore he is washing himself. He puts white clothes separate in a tank with chemical. He has washed them meticulously with good soap application and hard hitting on stone with a वूश वूश. Coloured clothes are washed separate. Other days, he collects laundry from across. Clothes from far off areas of Mumbai reach this Dhobi Ghat. Sunil collects clothes directly from homes. His neighbour, who is washing in a machine collects from laundries.

The clothes are washed in the morning. Afternoon they are put up for drying. In rains, they use drying machines – ( those who don’t have their drying machines use others’ machines). Work doesn’t stop in Mumbai.

The children go to nearby schools. Many people bath near their small houses. There is a public toilet, that they use. Such a closed congested space will not provide the leisure of open defecation, any way 🙂

Overall, dhobi ghat is a good representation of Mumbai spirit – cosmopolitan, hard working, skillful, niched.

Dharavi : hot bed for learning and development


Some of you may have visited Dharavi, and know most of what i am going to say here 🙂 For me, two hours spent in Dharavi (Reality tours conducts a guided tour here) was time well spent. Balaji, a young boy from Dharavi, who has now picked up English fairly well over the last five years, guided us. His NGO found his ‘navigation skills’ through Dharavi extremely good and he was therefore the preferred choice as a guide for tourists. English, he picked up as a necessity, just like Dharavikars pick up various skills, for survival.

Dharavi, Balaji said, is not typically a slum, since many people do have some rights on land there. He recounts how his grandfather along with his cousin came more than fifty years ago to this place from Tamil Nadu – which was marshy and swampy. They first grew some trees here and then brought some land under cultivation – to claim right over it. That is how settlements began over this land by different communities. Over a hundred communities/ linguistic groups are inhabiting, what is called Dharavi now. These include Gujaratis, Marathis, Tamilians, Muslim community and many more – each staying in their own small settlement within Dharavi. Occupationally and linguistically, they are unique, and derive comfort from living with their own people. Typically, kumbhars are from Gujarat, papadwallas from Maharashtra, and phoolwalalas from Tamil. There seems no conflict within these groups – Dharavi cannot grow further now : this two square km odd area bound by two railway lines on either side, Dadar at one end and marshy area on the fourth. There may have been some conflicts earlier over land : now every inch of Dharavi seems to have been taken and so there is no competition.

What keeps Dharavians/ Dharavikars tied to this place ? The first thing perhaps is community. As people from villages come to Mumbai, they like to have the same community feeling – this security is invaluable lest a small village person gets lost in the fast pace of this Metro. He is willing to suffer all inconveniences – provided he has the satisfaction of his children playing with their cousins, overlooked by family and extended family; the satisfaction of having his own people around in case of any problem.

The second pull factor is housing. Having a place, a shelter, a roof over head is the most basic human necessity. Even a small place works. Places so small – less than 100 sq feet – accomodate families/ joint families. This house may have a tap inside where ladies can take bath – gents can bath outside in the street. The space available is as much as was occupied when no one else claimed it. So it varies, and a few managed to have slightly larger areas : still however, small in terms of a planned house. Of course, there are no – there cannot be any – planning norms here. Narrow alleys lead from end to end, at some places two people cannot cross simultaneously. Overhanging wires are testament to a complex grit. A few houses now have built second/ third storeys and rent it out at even 20,000 per month. The current market rate here may be between Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh for a 100 square foot. People from different economic background – up to even lower middle class – stay here. A house is not just a house. It is a work place. In most houses there are home-run businesses – tailoring, scrap, papad making, pottery and many more. Close to 10,000 professions may be found in this 2 square km area. For lack of any norms, the vibrant economy that this living space/work space provides may be difficult to find outside. Combined with the community feeling, this keeps local people from trying to move out.

Dharavi is also a place that skills you – more than any formal Skill India programme ! There is no compulsion on child labour etc – however, parents want, and children/ youth understand what will fetch them a livelihood. Opportunity to learn is at home itself or in neighbourhood. Besides the residential area, there is an ‘industrial’ area of Dharavi running different trades. They have all learnt on the job – and learnt well. There is scrap business, with scrap reaching Dharavi from bangarwallas from across Mumbai and even outside Mumbai. The skills vary from segregation to processing – and are specialised. From plastic, to aluminium to clothes, everything comes here – and is moulded back into raw material/end products. There are furnaces and machines. Balaji says there have been no major accidents over past many years. There is leather factory, churning out finished products. One shop here tells me, they source wallets for the brand ‘Woodland’. The quality of the product is indeed good, and matches that found in a prime branded shop. Someone has helped create a brand here as well – it is called ‘Dharavi’. The leather shop owner, who has offers to sell his products abroad, says many ask him, why does he have a shop in such dirty premise – why doesn’t he take a shop outside that he can surely afford. He says, they don’t know the ‘power of a slum’.



The annual turnover of these informal businesses is estimated to be more than US $ 1 billion per year. These factories may not have permissions – and in that sense they are ‘illegal’ ( or economical). One may ponder how is legality to be defined. A city grows faster than its rules and planning. It grows haphazard may be , but is efficient ( ? Pareto optimal). More people in Dharavi are skilled and employed than in any place outside. If Dharavi has done that (mostly) on its own, Dharavi has much to guide rules and planning and skill development- than vice versa ! For is not the raison d’aitre of planners/ State : skilling people and tackling unemployment ?

There are some other pull factors for this area. Dharavi is very well connected – there are six railway stations at walking distance. The area is surrounded by commercial area and provides close opportunities for work/ business. The Lokmanya Tilak hospital is adjacent, and anyone in emergency can be taken there in no time. Vegetables/fruits sold on Dharavi road (by Dharavians, for all) are cheaper.

What more do Dharavians ask for ? The space for many people is (obviously) inadequate and better housing is required. The response to formal projects perhaps has not been very enthusiastic. Some say that getting the same area outside is definitely not worth it – as it breaks the dynamic ecosystem mentioned above without much benefit. What kind of in-situ upgradation is possible, needs to be discussed with Dharavians and a model acceptable to them, and practical for all evolved. There is water supply and electricity. There are schools too – like other schools, these too need attention for improvement in infrastructure and quality of education. Sanitation is another area for improvement. Around 30-40% Dharavians – especially employees in industrial area – may be daefecating in the open. For residential areas, public toilets require maintenance. People are aware of need for better sanitation, and if engaged, sustainable solutions can emerge. The skills of people here may be further polished through government programmes. Those programmes do not seem to have penetrated significantly. Many NGOs also claimed to work for Dharavians, but barring a few, most have either failed to make impact or have a reputation of making their own profit.

Dharavi has cinemas, showing slightly old popular movies at Rs 20. There are no other prominent sources of entertainment – except small open spaces where children can play. There are religious places of all sects.

Seeing a slum from outside, one may have different perceptions – pity on how people stay in such squalor, or perception that many people in slums are goondas or land grabbers indulging in crime or anti-social activities. From inside, a slum is a place, perhaps more humane than a non-slum; a place where people’s grit and community living makes them resilient and tolerant of worse civic conditions, living with a dream of a better tomorrow, a dream we all live with. Their hunger for development, their skills and resilience is an unparallel asset. Ignore it, at your own peril.

The Juhu Chowpatty – Life and Ivory towers




Though not recommended much – even by travel sites ( which recommend the Gateway of India, the Taj, the Oval Grounds and the VT Station, perhaps, due to overcrowding and gandgi – having some ( ok, enough !) time at my hand, i visited the Juhu Chowpatty. Shivaji Maharaj’s statue ( looked like not too old erection) naturally welcomed visitors. There were waves, and waves of happiness. Sea takes off everything – every worry. People, perhaps those from outside, immerse. Boys and men – irrespective of their physiques – shamelessly flaunting their hairy paunches; women drenching with their clothes on.

As one walks on away from Juhu chowpatty towards Koliwada, a few things catch the eye. One is the amazing use and respect of space, that Mumbaikars only can have. The entire 1 km odd beach is divided into cricket pitches – each one claiming only as much as required, and not more. Balls go to others’ fields and returned effortlessly. Beach is everyone’s. There are no jhagdas, again perhaps a Mumbaikar’s trait / survival necessity. All those playing there – youth from neighbourhoods, belong to the same fraternity. Without even knowing each other perhaps, one senses a bond within them. Where longitudinal space becomes limited, they can play perpendicular : with football team playing perpendicular to the cricket team.

In addition to the efficient use of space and bonhomie, there is talent. Many batsmen are effortlessly hitting balls deep towards the sea. The view reminds of government-school children playing band scene in the movie ‘Hindi medium’ and the dialogue – इन को मौक़ा मिले तो यह छत फाड़ के ऊपर निकल जाएँगे । ( Given a chance they would do wonders).

The young vibrant crowd is however, mostly boys. The women representation is either small girls accompanying their parents, or wives accompanying their families. When will our beaches and public spaces become fully accessible to young women ( though Mumbai perhaps provides this accessibility much more than any other city).

Abutting this vibrant crowd on the landward side are ivory towers : big buildings, hotels ( with names such as bay view). People from amongst the vibrant crowd, who make it big in life stay there. And look back on the crowd and place as ‘dirty’. Simultaneously, there seems to be an unparallel desire and competition for people in this crowd to climb up the steep walls and be part of the ‘ivory tower’. The Mumbai dream.

As one walks further ahead, one hits Koliwada. The sea seems to have meticulously washed back here, what belonged to land : the garbage. It is a site, we won’t like to show to anyone. While Clean up Mumbai van is at Juhu chowpatty, and that area does seem clean – despite sea of people visiting there every day, and some of them still littering – Swachh Bharat in urban areas must begin with slums and areas like Koliwada. There is no carpet to sweep this garbage under. Sea washes it all back.

Mountain biking in the Coorg


Never been a sportsman, but always keen to try new things, i booked up for a two-hour mountain biking in Coorg. The counter ego started its work, mentioning, why exert so much, rather have a morning walk with family etc. Thankfully, Nidhi advised that i must go. A family with a good mix of togetherness and personal space rocks 🙂 Later, when Fawaaz, my instructor mentioned how bad it felt when some people would just not turn up after booking, saying they over-slept, thus wasting their time, felt relieved not being one of the culprits 🙂

Jo sowat hai, so khowat hai. Seeing beautiful lotuses in the morning was one – another was decision that I would take kids zip lining, since Fawwaz, who became a friend recommended it highly.

Fawwaz belongs to a small town from Kerala. His friends who went to the Middle East are better off now, with cars and all, he says. But he has stuck to his passion, and as long as he has his bike (bicycle), he says he is happy. How many of us are able to do what we love ? When I share with him that my job is to tell people not to shit outside, he says, how lucky I am to serve the country and also earn a living ! He also encourages me to go ahead with my plan to take a sabattical and work with the people for a year.

Being with a male person is comfortable for those of us who did not learn since childhood to keep hormones aside while befriending a woman. Blessed are those who can maintain gender neutrality in making friends !

Fawwaz told me i did quite well – not stopping uphill, not fiddling while changing gears and not asking – aur kitna raasta bacha hai – he said i flowed with the flow 🙂 The secret was not high level of fitness – it was listening to the instructions he gave before we started – change gear before you pedal uphill, apply both brakes simultaneously and gently, apply brakes before you go downhill. Just these. Basics. On fitness too, i guess regular low key walk/jog kept me afloat : on this thanks to Ram/Lakshman, my kids- have to jog three km without panting or at least without letting them know that i am panting, so that they keep pace ! The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war !

Listening was easy – incentive was learning a new skill. Siddharth Shirole, a budding politician shared few days back that he gifts himself a new skill every birthday – bringing out his music album, or learning a new language or writing a book.

Biking per se was fun. It was no ordinary city biking with up/down slopes : we moved through kutcha rocky roads, with Fawwaz pointing out untouched evergreen forest on the sides, agriculture fields, with cows and calves either ignoring or getting scared, pond side, where I demonstrated triggering tools ( of no-shit) to Fawwaz, guava orchards, in front of a tribal temple , past an old man carrying a dead snake on his stick, besides a sacred grove – community forests where no one encroaches and Coorg special local cricket event – a healthy and happier entertainment instead of the city mall culture.

All in all, the bike tour was full of aha moments; endorphin flushes were a bonus.



Case Studies and Sanitation : Practices and Principles

A discussion is on in the SuSanA ( Sustainability Sanitation Alliance) regarding nature and utility of case studies for sanitation. The subject assumes importance in the context of establishment of RALUs ( Rapid Action Learning Units) in rural sanitation sector – although they are in the nascent stage and need much strengthening. Another relevant background is establishment of a Knowledge Management portal ‘Swachha Sangraha’ by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation – – wherein States/districts now have a facility to upload their good practices (as a video, document, ppt).

Our views/comments are shaped by our beliefs. Research is a domain of extracting information least adulterated by beliefs.

Since sanitation is a lot about engaging leaders and getting them interested in the subject, an attribute of a good case study is that it should be inspiring. I should see it and feel – ‘wow! it is possible. He/she has done it, and therefore, i too can do it.’ Given the numerous challenges in the sanitation sector, hope is refreshing.

A case study outlining a structural change with wider ramifictions is another ‘replicable’ good study. Shift of programme from the PHED ( Public Health Engineering Department) to RDD/PR ( Rural Development Department/ Panchayati Raj Department) is a case in point. The shift signifies a perspective change in looking at sanitation as an issue to be sorted out with people’s engagement, rather than as an engineering/ contractor driven largesse.

So what is a best practice/ case study. Any study that captures a principle leading to achievement of desirable and sustainable outcomes at scale in a short period of time. Capturing of principle may be more important than capturing a practice. In a district, the administration does ODF Olympics – group sports events in which only open defecation free villages can participate ; the sports events are deliberately conducted in villages that are non ODF : to make them jealous; by not allowing them to participate. In the instant case, the practice is conduct of sports event. But what are the underlying principle(s) ? The underlying principles include
*leadership and initiative by a champion
*fostering collective spirit – only group sports were chosen to further gel the ODF community and enhance their team spirit required for sustainabilty.
*positive discrimination and enhancing competition, by disallowing non-ODF villages from participating
*flexibility to the district to take decisions
*productive engagement of village-level motivators in people engagement activities (and not bureaucratic work alone!)

Another case in point could be conduct of Nirmal Utsavs by a district : events in ODF villages, where all the government departments converge to sort out issues of that village on priority. Here too, the practice is a mere conduct of event, the principle, in addition to the principles enlisted above, is positive incentivisation of ODF villages.

Mere conduct of these events, unaccompanied by the principles underlying the conduct of this practice, may not lead to adequate results. As a corollary, a case study that captures and evaluates principles arising out of a practice is a good case study.

Principles should be disseminated, practices can be innovated.

In addition to disseminating good principles, principles that have not yielded results may also be understood and disseminated so that they are avoided. A case in point could be ‘construction of toilets without people’s engagement’.

The phrase ‘In India, many pilots have been successful, but few are replicated’ has to be qualified by the practice-principle framework. Principles are almost like natural truths – Sun rises in the East – and not likely to be incorrect. If the case studies however, fail to capture, reiterate and emphasise them, and focus only on the practices, which are nothing but mere examples of a good principle, the point in the case study may be missed.

Needless to say, replicability, dissemination and understanding of principles will also depend on mode of delivery of a case study. A case study, unless discussed, is dead.

Last but not the least, the effectiveness of a case study will depend on who is discussing this case study. The ones most enviably placed to make Bharat Swachh are the officials in key positions – Collectors, CEO, Zilla Panchayats, Municipal Commissioners. The case studies must reach them. In real time. In other words, the system of independent evaluation and feedback should be institutionalised within the system. This – timely and actionable feedback to implementers – was aimed to be sought through the RALU and the Swachha Sangraha platform. Multiplicity of discussion forums may have some merits – it brings in more stakeholders : however, these may not have the desirable impact if crux of these discussions do not reach the implementers for quick action.