NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take up a broom and sweep the filthy streets of the capital on Thursday, launching a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of cleanliness and better sanitation.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, is being launched on the birthday of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi - a public holiday - and aims to inform people about the link between sanitation and public health.
"A clean India is the best tribute we can pay to Bapu when we celebrate his 150th birth anniversary in 2019. Mahatma Gandhi devoted his life so that India attains 'Swarajya' (home rule). Now the time has come to devote ourselves to the 'Swachchhata' (cleanliness) of our motherland," Modi said in a statement last week.
"I urge every one of you to devote at least one hundred hours every year, two hours every week, towards cleanliness. We can’t let India remain unclean any longer. On 2nd October I myself will set out with a broom and contribute to this pious task," he said.
India's burgeoning towns and cities are littered with garbage, the result of massive urban migration, poor civic planning and inadequate waste disposal systems, and rivers and lakes are polluted with sewage and industrial effluents.
Less than a third of India's 1.2 billion people have access to sanitation and more than 186,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to the charity WaterAid.
A United Nations report in May said half of India's population still practise open defecation - putting them at risk of cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.
The resulting diseases and deaths cause major economic losses, and a World Bank report in 2006 estimated that India was losing 6.4 percent of GDP annually because of poor access to sanitation.
Modi's government, which swept to power in May, has made building toilets a priority and he has pledged that every household will have a toilet by 2019.
According to WaterAid research, about 16 million Indians a year gain access to a basic toilet. This will need to increase to more than 100 million a year if the whole population is to have a toilet by 2019.
While the prime minister is expected to take to the narrow lanes of a north Delhi slum on Thursday for a photo opportunity, ministers and other government officials have been ordered to clean their offices - including their toilets.
Ministers and bureaucrats have already been photographed sweeping their office compounds, while over 2,000 staff at President Pranab Mukherjee's sprawling estate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, were reported to be engaged in a big cleanup.
Many civil society organisations and companies have also joined the campaign, spreading awareness in urban slums and villages by putting on street plays about rubbish disposal, handing out leaflets about washing hands and even giving out broomsticks to members of the public.
"We have been working on the issue of clean water and sanitation for years, but the government's campaign has given everyone a new boost," said Sajit Menon from Save the Children, which has been promoting awareness in 114 slums in Delhi.
"Before, we would find it hard to get funding from corporates for such an issue, now there is much more interest to fund these programmes."
London-listed Vedanta Resources said on Wednesday it was joining the Clean India Mission by launching special drives at all its sites, in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu.
Vedanta, which has oil and gas wells, mines and power stations, said it was already constructing 30,000 toilets in rural Rajasthan and had plans to build 10,000 more.
Aid workers said that while increased investment in infrastructure was important, there must also be a change in attitudes.
"It won’t be enough just to build new toilets. Education and work to change people’s behaviour and attitudes to sanitation are crucial if we are to realise the full health and economic benefits of sanitation," said Neeraj Jain, Chief Executive of WaterAid India.
Editing by Tim Pearce