In eastern India’s Mawlynnong village, tidying up is a ritual that everyone – from tiny toddlers to toothless grannies – takes very seriously. This small, 600-odd person town in the Meghalaya region is renowned as the cleanest village in India.
And for India, that’s really saying something. Discarded bottles and crumpled food wrappers mixed with cow dung – and worse – are simply part of the topography in most of the country. So much so that prime minister Shri Narendra Modi launched the ambitious “Clean India Mission” (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) in October 2014 with a goal of drastically sprucing up the country’s major cities by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150 birthday in 2019.
A woman sweeps debris into a cone-shaped wastebasket in Mawlynnong (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
Mawlynnong is already way ahead of the curve, though. It was declared the cleanest village in Asia in 2003 and the cleanest in India in 2005 by Discover India magazine. More recently, Modi acknowledged Mawlynnong as the cleanest village in Meghalaya and a model for the rest of the county in a 2015 radio address. In May 2016 he highlighted it as “Asia’s cleanest village” in a celebration of the government’s successes (including the Clean India programme).
This claim to fame stuck, and the village has become a regional legend and source of pride. Walk in, and all the typical rubbish is mysteriously, miraculously absent.
Children play on Mawlynnong’s immaculate streets, which are maintained daily by children and dedicated town gardeners (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
So how do you get a community to become a model of cleanliness and sanitation in a country where this has long been a problem? The answer, it seems, is to start them young.
All the typical rubbish is mysteriously, miraculously absent.
Eleven-year-old Deity Bakordor starts her day around 6:30 am. Her chore, shared with all the village kids, is the beautification of the town. Teasel brooms in hand, the children storm the streets, sweeping up dead leaves and garbage before school. The children are also responsible for emptying the rubbish bins – which are surprisingly pretty, hand-woven, cone-shaped baskets scattered throughout town – and separating organic waste from burnable trash. Leaves and other biodegradable waste are buried (and eventually used as fertilizer); everything else is driven far from the village and burned. There are also dedicated town gardeners who maintain riots of public plants and flowers that line the footpaths, making a walk here incredibly pleasant.
Even the rubbish bins are aesthetically pleasing in Mawlynnong (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
I asked Bakordor if she was happy to live in such a clean place. She nodded, shyly. And what if a visitor dropped rubbish on the ground, what would she do? She replied that she wouldn’t say anything to the visitor directly. But she’d pick it up.
Cleanliness is deeply ingrained into living a good life.
Bakordor explained that in Mawlynnong, there’s normal daily cleaning for children and adults, then extra on Saturdays when the village leader assigns out “social work” to be completed for the good of the town. For her, that might mean helping clean her school. It’s an impressive system, but even more impressive is that this is the norm. Cleanliness is deeply ingrained into living a good life here; it’s just what you do.
I peeked at the family’s pristine outdoor cooking area to see the fruit of these labours, and Bakordor’s grandmother, Hosana, held aside the curtain that leads to their two-room home. Sure enough, each area was immaculate: the floors freshly swept, the dishware sparkling, bedding folded.
Deity Bakordor, 11, starts each day by cleaning up the streets with other Mawlynnong children (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
So where did this sanitation routine come from? No one knows for sure, but, according to my guide Shishir Adhikari, it likely stemmed from an outbreak of cholera more than 130 years ago, and cleanliness was encouraged to control its spread. Early Christian missionaries probably helped implement and encourage the practice too.
The villagers are also of the Khasi people, a traditionally matrilineal society. Perhaps, with women in dominant roles in society, keeping the home and environment orderly also takes on a greater role, Adhikari and I speculated.
“We are Christians from more than 100 years back, and cleaning is learned from our elders,” said housewife Sara Kharrymba. “We pass on these skills, from me to my children, from them to their children.”
In other words, this isn’t habit, it’s a long-time tradition. Kharrymba’s own day begins by cleaning their entire compound, she said.
Homes in Mawlynnong are simple, typically made of bamboo and metal, and they – and their yards – are all immaculately clean (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
While we chatted, she smiled at her six-year-old daughter, Sanjanai, who was swinging gleefully on a swing made of leftover plastic bags. The question of what to do with plastic garbage is still a big one, as burning it is toxic. Often the materials are reused, with containers repurposed as planters and bags turned into swings.
“My kids know it’s different here,” Kharrymba said.
Sanjanai Kharrymba, 6, plays on an upcycled swing outside her home (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
Her children haven’t been outside the village yet, she added, but “sometimes guests stay here, and they talk.” She described how every home in the village has a toilet (another major goal of the Clean India programme), and how good her children are at following the rules for hygiene.
She paused, staring out at the small pond on her property, whose water looked crystal clear. “I am very proud to live here,” she said.
A view of Mawlynnong (Credit: Tanveer Badal)
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.