Mumbai (AsiaNews) - This morning in New Delhi cleaners from Valmiki Basti Colony found themselves with an exceptional co-worker, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.
Wielding a broom, the prime minister cleaned one side of the road, inaugurating his much-heralded Clean India campaign (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan).
In a symbolic move, Modi chose the birthday of the Mahatma Gandhi - India's independence leader - to present an ambitious project whose goal is to improve the sanitary conditions of the Indian people.
Modi's action might seem just a big publicity stunt. However, speaking to AsiaNews, Lenin Raghuvanshi, director of the People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), an organisation committed to the defence and promotion of Dalit right, calls today's demonstration a positive step.
"The Clean India campaign," he explains, "is a step towards reconciliation with Gandhi and against the mind-set that still keeps the caste system alive. In this sense, I welcome the prime minister's step."
In the caste system, Dalits -"untouchable" outcaste - take care of most menial and degrading tasks, namely those involving contact with anything that is dirty and "impure".
This ranges from the tanning of hides and skins and animal slaughter to the removal of garbage and animal carcasses.
Even today - in spite of the official abolition of the caste system - streets, latrines and sewers are cleaned by Dalits.
Modi's five-year national campaign kicks off today and on 2 October 2019, the government will take stock of its achievements.
This is a tall order. The first - and most difficult - thing to do will be to get people to stop defecating in the open.
In fact, more than 600 million Indians have no access to privies. To change the situation, Mr Modi has promised to build toilets in every school and provide every home with a one over the next five years. This is expected to cost 620 billion rupees (US$ 10 billion).
The government has earmarked 146 million rupees of its own money for the project, and expects the remaining amount to come from the corporate sector, international development organisations and elsewhere.
However, to build health services will not (and cannot be) the only solution to "clean" India.
In all of the country's cities - including some areas in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata - it is not only easy to see people performing bodily functions outdoor, but they also dump trash everywhere. Indian rivers are virtual open dumps.
For this reason, the campaign calls on people to take an active part in the project, learning to keep the streets clean and acquire a new "consciousness" about health and hygiene.
As part of the cleanliness "battle", Raghuvanshi however has some misgivings about another measure by the central government.
"The authorities presented a plan to transport goods via the Ganges. If this is implemented," he warns, "the government will end up polluting even more the already highly polluted waters of the sacred river".