How Design Thinking can help the Swachh Bharat Mission

The mission will succeed—or fail—because of people. And to get people involved, we need to reframe the problem and identify ways for each set of stakeholders to contribute

Amrita Chowdhury

[Photograph by Marcin Bialek under Creative Commons]

As we look at the second anniversary of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we cannot but acknowledge how far the conversation has progressed on the vision and yet how little the needle has shifted on the outcomes.

The difference is starker in our urban areas. Cities are the windows to the nation, where the most vocal residents reside and the most influential visitors arrive. Naturally, then, the Swacch Bharat Mission efforts in cities are critical in making opinions about the efficacy of the programme itself. Rural toilet construction statistics and the media blitz about a gram sarpanch crusading for clean drinking water notwithstanding, what hits us most is visible urban waste and the crumbling waste management infrastructure.

But is it just that?

In a problem as large as national cleanliness, infrastructure definitely matters a lot. It is important to construct toilets for the poor and the mobile and to ensure water connectivity and safety in those toilets. It is important to create garbage collection mechanisms, increase public waste bins and improve public waste collection systems and recycling. We need innovative tech-enabled solutions that can measure and ensure better collection, disposal and cleaning of waste.

But infrastructure is only one part of the challenge.

Adoption is the larger problem. Adoption requires behavioural change—in how we perceive waste, how we approach cleanliness, and the steps we take to change our actions. A clean India seems a faraway dream, already the target of brickbats and naysayers. Much like what the stated dream of putting a man on the moon must have appeared in the middle of the previous century. Must it be so?

Instances from around the world can provide ideas. Not just cities such as Calgary (Canada) or Adelaide (Australia) in developed nations, but also how Kigali in developing Rwanda has transformed and cleaned itself in a relatively short span.

Having worked on insights and messaging for the mission at the national level, it is heartening to note the trickle of effort already underway and suggest an integrated Design Thinking-based approach to creating a cleaner India. In particular, two specific Design Thinking frameworks—reframing the problem and looking at solutions from perspectives of multiple stakeholders—can help. As always, the real difference will lie in execution.

Reframing the Swachh Bharat Problem

Understanding the problem in the context of our beliefs on cleanliness

Indians have deep-seated beliefs about cleanliness and waste. The study of symbols, rituals, language, popular culture, and history-mythology gives us a deeper understanding these cultural beliefs.

Pure and pristine: We believe in ritual baths before prayers or festivals. Holy water is said to cleanse sins. Water and the colour white symbolise cleanliness and purity. When nature is untouched and pristine, it is said to be pure.

Ownership: We believe in cleaning our selves, our homes, and our immediate surroundings. Through cleaning we establish ownership and reflect our own identity. Not included in this ownership is the collective notion of common goods and common spaces. It possibly derives from our scarcity mindset, developed over centuries when it was important to preserve one’s immediate cohort. We are happy to sweep dirt on to the front of the neighbour’s property or litter in public spaces.

Health: Clean signifies germ free. It can mean an inner cleansing as well—through yoga and meditation. In a country where Herd Immunity is possibly the highest in the world, it is important to say cleaning has removed germs. At the same time, it is often just a perception—cleaning a table with a dirty rag or mopping the floor with a filthy mop does not really clean and disinfect a space.

Shame: While being clean is good, dirt is considered impure and the act of cleaning has stigma associated with it and is often delegated to someone else. Typically, this delegation was dependent on class, caste and gender codes.

Internal or external: At one level we believe in internal cleansing and that a clean mind and clean heart are important. At another level, we value external cleanliness and beauty. If produce is clean from the outside, we assume it is hygienic or healthy. If visible part of the room is clean, even if dust is swept under the rugs or the furniture, it doesn’t bother us. If the syringe that is used for us is new, the overflowing and unsegregated wastebasket at our clinic or hospital does not affect us.

These deep-seated beliefs about cleanliness have far reaching repercussions. It influences how our cities, markets, streets, temples, and hospitals look. It has already affected how we process and make food, manufacture medicines, or even manage our accounts. Perception is everything, reality notwithstanding.

Reframing the problem of waste to reverse belief systems

To change beliefs around dirt and cleanliness, we need to change the popular dialogue around these latent belief systems.

First, if we understand that waste has value, we will be more willing to deal with it. If we understand how waste can be converted easily to cash by selling it or converted into energy or fertilizer or converted into useful products through recycling, recycled manufacturing or up-cycling, we will start to realize its value. Once the conversation changes, belief systems can also change.

Second, if we understand that waste needs to be feared—either through punitive measures like fines where they can be enforced or through its negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our families—we may choose different habits.

Third, if we understand that the act of cleaning itself is not shameful or derogatory, we would be more willing to do our part.

Fourth, if we understand that our small steps towards cleaner behaviours are noticed and appreciated, it will further motivate and incentivise us to stay the course.

Culture-led beliefs are never static. At any given time, there are residual and dominant beliefs, but also some new emergent beliefs—usually shaped by media, movies, the economy, political and social discourse, and more. For example, within a few decades post liberalisation, we have greater opportunity and prosperity; hence the older discourse around contentment with less has given way to aspiration and consumption. Our relationship with money has changed. It is no longer virtuous to be poor. Thus beliefs around cleanliness can be actively shaped when clean actions are shown in media. Celebrities posing with the humble broom gather sniggers and trolls today. But a repeated message that envelops us across platforms and is subtly embedded in content, especially television, can go a long way in shaping perception.

Creating triggers for behaviour change

Adoption of clean infrastructure and clean habits would require changes in beliefs and actions. That is tough. Messaging is being leveraged across the country to create awareness, generate interest and trigger action. But it is not enough to simply bombard people with messaging. It is important to understand what is being communicated and what action is being asked for. Change requires motivation, and like the nava-rasas, multiple emotions must be invoked to influence behaviour.

Pride: We take pride in our flag and get offended by a word deemed seditious but are not concerned about the soil we stand upon or the street we live in. What would it take to make a country that is more than its symbols?

Respect: We respect our own property in private. We clean our homes and shops and even leave our shoes outside to keep dirt away. Yet the refuse spilling from our gates and doorsteps plagues our neighbours, and the open disposal at our monuments, places of worship, mandis and markets, festers germs and illnesses. How can respect shift from celebrities and religious symbols to public health and public sanitation?

Competition: In a nation of multitudes, our need to stand out is extremely high. We love every small win and strike every small bargain. How can this competitive streak be harnessed for the urban and rural commons?

Appreciation: Our love for receiving empathy and connect is great, but our ability to express enthusiasm and appreciation is low. We remain stoic in our homes and workplaces, though we crave being noticed ourselves. This is changing with the next generation, which is more open to showing and sharing. How can we use the power of appreciation to transform behaviours?

Shame: Personal and communal honour is a matter of pride, and its violation can lead to deep shame. How can we extend this to the public common space, and leverage the power of social media to ‘shame’ each other into better behaviour?

Fear: The ease with which we negotiate every situation and find compromise alternatives negates the influence of fear in our lives. Yet, without turning the nation into a police state, how can we instil fear? If not the fear for property and possessions, could the fear for the health and wellbeing our loved ones be tapped into?

Addressing Swachh Bharat Solutions for Multiple Stakeholders

At the core of Design Thinking is a powerful tenet. Every problem has multiple stakeholders and hence the solutions must address the real, unmet and latent needs of each of these groups. When the obvious solutions fail—in this case adoption and behaviour even where infrastructure exists—we need to use innovative solutions and behaviour change triggers. These solutions will combine technology, digital, psychographics and behavioural economics to drive outcomes.

Efforts are already underway in many distinct pockets to tap such ideas. The way to make these into a groundswell movement will take time and effort on the part of every stakeholder, and also an honest intention to be a part of the journey. We can define four major stakeholder segments, and interlinked solutions are needed across these segments.


There are several layers of governing bodies—from the Central government which creates the policies and directives, to the state government which implements the policies and augments and disburses the budgets allocated by the Centre, to the urban local bodies (ULBs) and rural development centres which implement the solutions and execute the daily efforts needed to sustain the mission.

But government is not an aggregate entity; it is a combination of individuals with their own aspirations and capabilities. How well we integrate solutions to tap into the potential and intent of each person will determine the success of the enterprise.

Capacity building: We need to enable individual functionaries—both officers and staff members. Training workshops, digital courses and video-based lessons can go a long way. Tracking and monitoring mechanisms, aided by technology, can measure progress. By linking it with citizen engagement and transparency mechanisms, spurious reporting of infrastructure and facilities can be minimised.

Inter departmental cooperation: Collaboration has already started. Only municipal wards are under the ambit of the urban development ministry. Other places such as educational institutions, healthcare institutions, monuments and places of worship, animal and produce markets, roads and highways, train stations and airports are all governed by different ministries. Realising this, the central mission body is creating a compendium of specific ideas and tools to cascade to different ministries at central, state and city levels. The challenge will lie in last mile awareness and clarity on leveraging available funds, processes and resources to execute at the local level. Indian Railways and airport authorities are already taking the lead in creating a plethora of cleanliness initiatives. Staff is being trained and processes are being set in place.  

Rewards and incentives: Government officials are individuals vying for promotions, rewards and career progress. Setting up outcome-based recognition and rewards frameworks, and linking them with competitions (city cleanliness rankings), celebrations (Swacchta Divas, or cleanliness day), champions of the month, and best departments will ensure engagement and performance.

Changing laws and practices: Creating strong laws around effluents or littering, offering easily understood subsidies for waste recycling or conservation initiatives, strengthening the fines system and linking it with internet of things-enabled (IOT-enabled) tracking will help better following of rules. Further, linking it with citizen apps and complaints hotlines or social media pages will improve transparency in the system and could propel officials to act. M-tickets are already used for airlines and cinema halls. By encouraging m-tickets for other public spaces and services, we can reduce paper.

Institutional cleaning staff

Under the governance of the local bodies are the actual functionaries—municipal employees or contract staff—who do the daily hands-on work from planning, managing, coordinating and cleaning. Salary levels are low, and the repetitive work requires continuous motivation—cleanliness is after all a daily activity.

Capacity building: Every staff member needs to understand and internalise the goals, processes and expected outcomes. Training is not enough. Indian Railways staff is very aware of and espouse Swachh Bharat Mission goals. But lack of cleaning supplies and tools doesn’t enable the translation of ideas to action. Sporadic supply causes motivation levels to slack and habits to break. Hence enabling staff with knowledge and tools is crucial. Tracking of work is even more critical. Even corporates grapple with last mile tracking of salespeople and merchandisers. With RFID and IOT enablement, some municipalities are trying to track implementation. Bins and trucks have embedded devices which track the route taken by trucks, number of bins emptied and so on.

Rewards and incentives: Technology is also not the final answer. Staff can flummox the best tracking devices and find loopholes in processes. Corporates, sports people and the armed forces routinely use the power of shared purpose and future impact to motivate individuals. Giving meaning to work and recognising it through simple mechanisms like uniforms, badges, employee recognition systems, and local competitions will allow staff to take their work seriously. Municipalities are already giving uniforms to give identity to cleaning staff. Railways, in some areas, are recognising individual performance through staff of the month campaigns.

Appreciation: Incentive management is not a one-way process from employers and government to the staff. If citizens recognise the efforts of their local cleaners, even through smiles and words of appreciation, it can trigger the limbic brain that influences emotions and drives subconscious behaviour. We need to remember that with low paid jobs, as with the high paid ones, rational motivations and drivers will only go part of the way.  


Companies are already coming together to adopt the cause of cleanliness, encouraging employee participation, and spreading the message. But they may need to do even more. While industrial waste, effluents and emissions are not a part of the mandate of Swachh Bharat Mission, a large part of the toxic environment of our cities and towns comes from unsafe industrial practices and low-efficiency products. In an integrated manner, through climate control goals, the government is aiming to reduce pollution and improve sanitation. Businesses will need to design better facilities and better products.

Reducing waste footprint: At the macro level, companies will need to adopt better mechanisms, technologies and processes for waste and water management. Economist Amartya Sen once joked that if premium hotels across India increased their temperature settings from near frigid-zone by even a couple of degrees, India could become a power abundant state. Similarly, if hotels, malls, factories and offices pledged to improve their swacchta (cleanliness) footprint through grey water recycling, purchasing recycled products and at-source cleaning, it will reduce the overall burden of the mission. Recycling can be introduced into the business—by using edible spoons in food and beverages establishments, by using recycled materials in packaging, and more. Local non-profits and grassroots businesses are already aligning with urban local bodies in some areas for last mile segregated garbage collection.

Waste to value businesses: Young entrepreneurs are setting up businesses to collect waste and e-waste, and recycle or up-cycle these products or convert waste to energy or fuel. Even in rural areas, a few entrepreneurs are setting up biogas plants. There is commerce and enterprise in waste, and more localised solutions are needed.

Commercialisation of technology: Low-cost technologies and sanitation solutions have been developed at local universities. Even global institutions like Harvard and MIT are looking at sanitation problems in developing countries to create innovative solutions like faecal pit management and self-cleaning toilets. Businesses need to find such solutions and make them mass market. Clearly, there is money to be made in providing sanitation solutions.

Cleanliness as CSR: Given the mandate of the new Companies Act, businesses and media are willingly collaborating in cleanliness-linked branding campaigns. Personal and household cleaning product manufacturers are spreading the cleanliness vision through their own brand stories. They are participating in large events like Kumbh Mela or sponsoring government initiatives, local events and digital drives. There is scope for a lot more—adopting more parks, benches and public spaces; sponsoring toilet or garbage bin infrastructure; conducting employee cleanliness drives; creating in-program messaging; or setting up CCTVs to monitor littering habits. 

Leverage small business owners: Shopkeepers and stall keepers can significantly contribute to the face of our streets and markets, even through a simple act of keeping a small bucket for garbage disposal and keeping their immediate area clean.


This is the toughest pillar. Habits become beliefs and beliefs can be held strongly—even irrationally so. Citizens who behave differently when expected to, inside luxury hotels or malls or a regimented office environment, behave in the opposite manner when unfettered by the propriety of expectations.

Education: Government and educational institutions are trying to bring the messages inside homes and communities through child and youth ambassadors. Sporadic school-led cleanliness drives will not change beliefs. But an integrated system of competitions, recognition, street performances, experiential and activity-based initiatives that are conducted in a tiered manner from local to national levels might help in deeper belief changes.

Competition: Just like national cleanliness rankings, cities could compete within themselves at the locality, street and society level. In many areas, citizens’ action groups are taking charge of their local area by building parks and green spaces, and beautifying underpasses and bridges. But these remain oases of visual beauty in an otherwise chaotic urban environment. Using social media to spread the word might possibly inspire others to contribute to their own communities. Cleanliness ambassadors, students or older citizens, can spread the message to local businesses and roadside stalls.

Tackling superstition: Media, celebrities and community influencers can play a huge role in debunking myths around cleanliness and the stigma attached to the act of cleaning—whether inside our homes, our places of work or worship or our public spaces.

In the end, as much as creating commercial interests and infrastructure for cleanliness is needed, Swacch Bharat Mission will succeed—or fail—because of people. Disbelievers can harm the effort by not participating and even more by being cynical. If we do not reframe the problem and identify ways for each set of stakeholders to contribute, hubris aside, we will not move ahead in this journey. 

About the author

Amrita Chowdhury
Amrita Chowdhury


Gaia Smart Cities

Amrita Chowdhury is Director of Gaia Smart Cities, an urban technology firm providing wide area Internet of Things (IOT) and data automation solutions for enterprises and cities. 

Amrita is a business strategist, engineer and innovator, and brings high-energy leadership to the businesses and people she interfaces with. Her experience with strong brands—whether heritage or reinvented—allows her a unique understanding of growth, digital spaces and brands.

She was President of DY Works (Future Group), a brand strategy and brand design firm. She was the Country Head for Harlequin, where she expanded its overall India business and significantly grew its local content portfolio. She served as Associate Director, Education for Harvard Business School for India. Prior to moving back to India, Amrita provided board advisory and strategy consulting for ASX and FTSE 100 clients with Oppeus in Australia and strategy consulting for Fortune 100 clients with AT Kearney in the US. During her consulting career, Amrita worked across a variety of industries including engineering, mining, legal and professional services, insurance, technology, government, education, auto ancillaries, waste management, and more.

Amrita holds seven US patents for semi-conductor manufacturing for work done at Applied Materials in California. That initial work in innovation lets her view new products and services through the business lens. She has led high velocity, early growth stage businesses, looking at India entry and growth strategies.

She is an independent director on the board of Simmonds Marshall, a BSE firm, and on the board of Drishtant, a tech startup for the social sector.

She is passionate about content—spoken, written and visual. She has written two books of fiction: Faking It (Hachette), an art crime thriller, and Breach (Hachette), a cyber crime thriller, and is a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the IITian Soul (Westland). She writes on business, technology, marketing and lifestyle issues in mainstream media, magazines and electronic platforms. 

Amrita holds engineering degrees from IIT Kanpur and UC Berkeley, where she was a Jane Lewis Fellow, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon - Tepper Business School.

She loves art, music, travel, literature and baking, and supports various causes related to healthcare and education.