Friday, October 27, 2006

Saaf Aangan Dreams October 22, 2006

In the late seventies I lived with my family in Mexico City, where I noticed that our neighbours would wash the foot path outside their house every day. But we, being good Indians, swept our home, washed our driveway but left the pavement to the municipality. As a result, the walkway outside our neighbours’ homes sparkled proudly while ours remained dirty and sad. It didn’t take long before we felt ashamed and followed the good ways of our neighbours.
While we were learning civic virtue in Mexico, a flight lieutenant in the Indian Air Force, Madhu Sawant, had the same idea. He asked himself, what if each Indian took care of the little space outside his home, office or shop? So, when he retired he set up an NGO called “I Clean Bombay”. Redefining the charming, wistful Hindi word, aangan, to mean the space between one’s boundary wall and the middle of the street, he created the “Saaf Aangan Scheme”, which was formally adopted in 2002 by Mumbai’s municipality. The scheme allows an individual to lease the footpath outside his home from the municipality for Rs 3 per year, and makes him officially responsible for keeping it free of garbage, hawkers, and squatters.
In 2005, the NGO Council of Mumbai persuaded the municipality to convert Saaf Aangan into enforceable Rules, which provide a fine for littering of Rs 1000 on citizens and Rs 100 for house owners, and also encouraged home owners to keep litter bins on footpaths. In August 2006, the municipality decided to upgrade Saaf Aangan rules into Bye-Laws to cover hawkers, who are also responsible for keeping the surrounding space around them clean. There are 300 Nuisance Detectors to enforce the fines. “Even a paanwala can apply to the municipal ward office to lease the area around his stall,” says Sawant.

Like many Indians I despair over the filth in our public spaces. But I am embarrassed to complain as there are so many ills more pressing. In Saaf Aangan, however, we may have the makings of a big idea for our grimy towns. Its attraction is that it doesn’t depend on the state but on individual initiative. It also feeds on self-interest rather than altruism because one wants to return home to a clean doorstep. Any group of individuals in any town in India can make it happen. It helps to rope in a sensitive municipal commissioner, but that is not necessary. Before BMC got involved, 500 municipal schools and 83 police colonies were practicing Saaf Aangan. So were citizen in neighbourhoods like N. Dutta Marg in Andheri (west), which is now lined with trees and has flower beds along the boundary walls of all its 35 residential complexes. Once a few get going it doesn’t take long for neighbours to emulate as we learned in Mexico City.
Saaf Aangan should be easier to implement in smaller towns where the word spreads faster, enforcement is easier, and there is greater sense of belonging. Tanya Mahajan, a volunteer with says, “Belonging and ownership are an intrinsic part of this concept, and schools are a good place to start”. So tomorrow, when you sweep your house, why not absent-mindedly sweep the pavement in front of your door. You might create a revolution. But remember, man is the only creature on this planet who is truly dirty. And when we haven’t taken civic responsibility for two thousand years, it won’t happen overnight.

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