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Anyone who has visited India knows it is perhaps the dirtiest country in the world. But hardly any leader talks about it. Mahatma Gandhi used to urge Indians to clean their own toilets – a job that Hindus thought was 'dirty' and should therefore be done by someone from the lowest caste – and tried to set an example by cleaning his own.

It has not caught on. In millions of middle class Indian homes, the toilet is only cleaned when the daily help turns up to do it. The family members themselves will not stoop to performing such a lowly task.

Previous prime ministers have not tackled the issue, preferring to stick to loftier themes. But Narendra Modi is cut from different cloth and has been telling Indians some home truths: India is dirty and we Indians – you and I – must clean it up.

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It's not a nice thing for him to have to say, or for Indians to hear, but it must be said if anything is to change. While most Indians are scrupulously clean about their person, they think public spaces – even the few feet around them – are not their responsibility, so they litter, spit, and urinate with abandon.

I have seen people in small-town India eating roadside snacks right beside open sewers swarming with flies. In my neighbourhood shopping centre in Delhi, people happily eat outdoors in cheap eateries with all the refuse of the restaurant kitchen lying around near their tables, being nibbled by mangy stray dogs. When a home or temple is swept, the garbage will be left right outside.

Mr. Modi has taken up a titanic challenge. On a visit to the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi soon after being sworn in, he told the huge crowd that came to hear him speak that the city had to be cleaned up, along with the filthy River Ganges which has been unspeakably contaminated by millions of tons of untreated sewage.

Later, on Aug. 15, India's Independence Day, Mr. Modi used his address to the nation to talk once again about dirt and how shameful it was that half the population still defecates in the open. He promised to build a toilet in every government school.

Lack of access to toilets causes girls between 12 and 18 to miss around five days of school every month during their periods. For these girls, a toilet is more important than the state of the currency or GDP.

Some members of the Indian elite were aghast that such a solemn occasion had been reduced to talk of toilets. Others, however, understood that some blunt speaking was required, and Mr. Modi was doing it.

He even had to tell government ministries in Delhi to clear their offices – all messy affairs with dusty files piled higgledy piggledy on untidy desks, various rusting gadgets on the floor and generally presenting a very shabby appearance.

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Huge vans were later seen leaving government offices with all this detritus. So, without Mr. Modi, the men and women in these offices were unable to formulate the simple thought 'there's a lot of clutter around here, let's clear up'?

The other refreshing thing about Mr. Modi's talk about the need to clean up India is that he makes it clear that Indians will have to be responsible for this. They cannot expect the government to do it for them. When it comes to dirt – again probably because of the deeply ingrained caste ideas of hierarchy and who should do what job depending on their caste – Indians assume that some other less fortunate person than they should do the cleaning. It's as though honour is at stake, but a misguided notion of honour.

Also at the root of this lack of civic sense is a culture of extreme individualism. Indians tend not to act together to keep their surroundings clean. They are determined to do what suits them, never mind the wider community.

Changing this culture will be difficult. After all, if no less a man than Gandhi couldn't get Indians to emulate his toilet-cleaning example, what hope is there?

Nonetheless, Mr. Modi is invoking Gandhi as part of his efforts to make India a cleaner country. As a tribute, he has urged Indians to clean up the country by 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi's birth.

One thing is for sure. If Mr. Modi, with all his energy, drive, determination and reputation for getting things done, fails to clean up India, then there is little hope that it will ever happen.

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