Stopping stunting, Swachh Bharat, and trash cans

I’m writing from the opening minutes of a large Unicef conference called Stop Stunting at the Taj Palace hotel in Delhi.  On my way into the hotel, I had with me an empty soda can to throw away.  The lobby of the hotel is indeed palatial, but neither there, nor downstairs in the conference area, nor in the large meeting room of the conference could I find a trash can.

After searching this huge, glittering expanse, I eventually tried the men’s room.  But even there, the otherwise servile bathroom attendant yelled at me just before I dropped my piece of trash in: that trash can is isn’t for the cloth towels at the sinks.  So what am I supposed to do with it? He took it from me wordlessly.

Of course, trash cans will not stop or otherwise impact stunting — although one would not know it from the extent to which litter and sweeping have absorbed all the media and political attention of India’s new Swachh Bharat Mission.  But this surpassingly fancy hotel intends to have everything proper, and we learn something about cultural ideas of cleanliness and purity from what this goal, immaculately achieved, does and does not include.

It remains to be seen whether the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission can be returned to rural open defecation, and the complex, deep challenges sanitation behavior change presents here.  I hope the this question will be at the heart of our thoroughly swachh conference to Stop Stunting.

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For more reflection on the Swachh Bharat Mission, see Anand Teltumbde’s recent article in EPW.

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