Welcome To 'The Cleanest Village In India' : Parallels A remote village in northeast India has put itself on the map with a regimen of cleanliness that could be a model for the rest of the country where the environment is deteriorating.
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Welcome To 'The Cleanest Village In India'

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Welcome To 'The Cleanest Village In India'

Welcome To 'The Cleanest Village In India'

Welcome To 'The Cleanest Village In India'

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The East Khasi Hills, of Meghalaya, is one of the seven small states of India's remote northeast region, and home to the "Cleanest Village in India." The mountain road climbs to Mawlynnong, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, giving way to Bangladesh farther south. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy/NPR

The East Khasi Hills, of Meghalaya, is one of the seven small states of India's remote northeast region, and home to the "Cleanest Village in India." The mountain road climbs to Mawlynnong, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, giving way to Bangladesh farther south.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

It bills itself as the "God's Own Garden," and this tribal village tucked in India's remote northeast is unlike any other in the country.

Resident Shidamon Kharrymba has help put Mawlynnong on the map as part of a team of women the village council has employed to clean up the common areas of the village each day. She carries the wicker dustbin that has become the emblem of Mawlynnong. Tourists snap up miniature versions of the baskets for mementos. Furkan Latif Khan for NPR hide caption

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Furkan Latif Khan for NPR

Resident Shidamon Kharrymba has help put Mawlynnong on the map as part of a team of women the village council has employed to clean up the common areas of the village each day. She carries the wicker dustbin that has become the emblem of Mawlynnong. Tourists snap up miniature versions of the baskets for mementos.

Furkan Latif Khan for NPR

Mawlynnong is free from what plagues so much of rural and urban India: litter, burning garbage and open defecation, the latter punishable by fine.

Reaching this mini-Shangri-La is a commitment, as we climb evergreen-studded mountain roads, peer into emerald valleys, and plateau into lush vegetation that overlooks the border with Bangladesh to the south.

Its leafy lanes fan out across the village lined with bamboo and wooden houses, some crowned with thatch roofs. But Mawlynnong isn't just quaint. This village, population 500, is picture-perfect clean.

The inhabitants from the dominant Khasi tribe in the state of Meghalaya grow betel nut and, appropriately enough, a plant called "broomstick." No village green or walkway is littered for long — by 7 a.m. a team of women, each paid $3 a day, are out sweeping and spiffing up the place.

The stream used for washing is crystal clear. Butterfly-filled gardens adorn almost every one of the 95 homes. Flowers line the lanes, and you can't walk 50 feet without seeing a wicker litter basket — the symbol of what is now known as the "Cleanest Village in India."

Children from the village come out early morning on Saturdays to pick up litter as part of the village's mandatory social work program. Someone from each household participates in the weekly ritual. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy/NPR

Children from the village come out early morning on Saturdays to pick up litter as part of the village's mandatory social work program. Someone from each household participates in the weekly ritual.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

Indian tourists descend like scientists who have discovered another species.

Uttam Dawn and his family traveled over 20 hours from Kolkata to reach this little Eden. "It's beautiful," he repeats it for emphasis. "We've never seen a place this clean."

Uttam Dawn, 42, and wife Moumita Dawn, 35, traveled hundreds of miles from Kolkata with their young son to see the cleanest village in India. Uttam says the sense of civic duty and communal responsibility is lacking in India's cities. "We don't care about each other. ... Here everyone takes care of everyone," he says. Furkan Latif Khan/NPR hide caption

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Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Uttam Dawn, 42, and wife Moumita Dawn, 35, traveled hundreds of miles from Kolkata with their young son to see the cleanest village in India. Uttam says the sense of civic duty and communal responsibility is lacking in India's cities. "We don't care about each other. ... Here everyone takes care of everyone," he says.

Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

He says the sense of civic responsibility evident in the village is missing where he's from.

A place this spit-polished is a novelty in India. Cities and villages are often unsightly and garbage-strewn. Villagers here are amused that they've become an attraction, put on the map because they clean.

And the secret to Mawlynnong's sparkle? A tribal tradition that equates cleanliness with a beauty all its own. Resident Badapbiang Khongtheim says fellow villagers don't look at how grand someone's house is but how tidy it is kept.

"Cleanliness has more value than material wealth," she says. "It's what people see, it's what they talk about, it's what they exchange compliments over."

"From the time we were young," she says this village — which is devoutly Christian — was taught "that God is clean."

"God's Own Garden" reads the sign that beckons visitors into Mawlynnong, population 500. Its tidy lanes and trimmed gardens are never strewn with litter for too long. In addition to the daily ritual of sweeping their homes and small plots, the village comes out every Saturday to jointly clean up. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy/NPR

"God's Own Garden" reads the sign that beckons visitors into Mawlynnong, population 500. Its tidy lanes and trimmed gardens are never strewn with litter for too long. In addition to the daily ritual of sweeping their homes and small plots, the village comes out every Saturday to jointly clean up.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

Tour guide Aisuk Lin says there is no escaping it — "it's in our genes."

"We love gardening. We love cleaning, especially to make the pots, the utensils, — shining!"

You can't walk 50 feet without seeing a wicker litter basket. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

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Julie McCarthy/NPR

You can't walk 50 feet without seeing a wicker litter basket.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

That Khasi women take pride in their kitchens is plain from seeing Hosana Mawroh's. This 47-year-old mother of six opened a small restaurant in the village where she caters to the army of visitors who come to marvel at Mawlynnong. Even as the pots boil away preparing food for 120 customers a day, her kitchen still gleams.

Mawroh says she's uncomfortable if things are out of order. "There's not a morning I don't feel like getting up, grabbing my broom, and sweeping my home and my compound," she says. "My heart doesn't allow me to be unclean."

But make no mistake, Mawroh says — all this beautifying is hard work — "from the time we wake ... until we sleep."

For those less enthused by dawn-to-dusk upkeep, there's always Morgan the town crier.

Hosana Mawroh, 47, started her own restaurant three years ago. She says the arrival of tourists "has uplifted us — we send our children to better schools in the capital, wear better clothes, and eat better food." Our life is changed "since we were put on the map," she says. But it is still a lot of hard of work to keep the village clean, she adds. Furkan Latif Khan/NPR hide caption

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Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Hosana Mawroh, 47, started her own restaurant three years ago. She says the arrival of tourists "has uplifted us — we send our children to better schools in the capital, wear better clothes, and eat better food." Our life is changed "since we were put on the map," she says. But it is still a lot of hard of work to keep the village clean, she adds.

Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Every Friday night he reminds residents of their duty, walking around the village and bellowing outside people's homes.

"You'd better show up in the parking lot at 6:30 Saturday morning for the social cleanup!" he yells. It's become a weekly ritual now that the stream of visitors is rising, and creating even more trash.

Mawlynnong's growing notoriety has led to a construction boom. Villagers are building more guest houses and a expanding a parking lot to keep up with the influx of tourists. However, the village council is concerned that the rapid construction and use of non-traditional designs and building materials will dilute the village's charm and authenticity. Furkan Latif Khan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Mawlynnong's growing notoriety has led to a construction boom. Villagers are building more guest houses and a expanding a parking lot to keep up with the influx of tourists. However, the village council is concerned that the rapid construction and use of non-traditional designs and building materials will dilute the village's charm and authenticity.

Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Anita Balu, 38, journeyed with her family from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and said, "We've spoiled nature [but] they've maintained the ambiance beautifully."

Of the thousands of tourists beating a path to the village door, Hosana Mawroh says it's not enough for them to simply admire what villagers do to maintain cleanliness. She said, "They should take this as an example and replicate it," back in their own villages and towns.

Badapbiang Khongthiem, 50, says it's the villagers' love for Mawlynnog that brings the community together and keeps the village so clean. She says the tourists "have made them even more conscious about beautifying their village." Furkan Latif Khan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Badapbiang Khongthiem, 50, says it's the villagers' love for Mawlynnog that brings the community together and keeps the village so clean. She says the tourists "have made them even more conscious about beautifying their village."

Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

One recent Saturday, the community cleanup drew mostly children, who ordered each other to pick up wrappers and litter. Bawan Buhdor is just 11, but the significance of civic duty is not lost on him. It's important, he said, "because if we clean the village, there [are] no germs, diseases, no pollution also."

The village reports no cases of malaria or dengue, diseases that afflict much of India. Sitting at 5,000 feet altitude helps defeat mosquito-borne diseases.

But Mawlynnong also has a rigorous recycling program, nonexistent in most of India.

And fame has brought rewards. Charming home stays have sprouted up. Stalls sell local crafts. The village headman says thanks to the influx of tourists — incomes are up 60 percent. Mawroh says as a result, she can now afford to buy her family better food and better clothing.

None of it would be possible without Mawlynnong's strong social cohesion and the humble act of cleaning.

Correction Dec. 26, 2017

An earlier version of this story misspelled betel nut as beetle nut.

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