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CHRIS UHLMANN: It was Indian independence hero and cleanliness champion Mahatma Gandhi's birthday yesterday and public servants across the nation commemorated in a unique way – they each picked up a broom and cleaned their offices.

The World Bank says poor sanitation and hygiene costs India's economy $50 billion each year and the country's recently elected prime minister Narendra Modi is determined to make filth a thing of the past.

Mr Modi was also seen sweeping the streets in Delhi and has promised to dedicate two hours each week to cleaning up his country – hoping others will do the same. 

Stephanie March reports.

(Woman speaking an oath in Hindi)

(Crowd repeating the oath)

STEPHANIE MARCH: It was an unusual start to the public holiday at the Chanakyapuri post office in Delhi. 

Sixty postal workers gathered to swear an oath – vowing to get rid of the garbage and keep their workplace clean. 

(Sound of sweeping brooms)

Armed with brooms and rags, administration staff swept the courtyard while mailmen cleaned smudges off the counter windows.

Padmagansha Mishra is in charge of this post office – one of more than 150,000 across the country. 

PADMAGANSHA MISHRA: And this is not happening in this post office only. In all the post offices throughout the country, this mission has started. 

STEPHANIE MARCH: But India's sanitation problem is bigger than a few dusty buildings – the country's streets and public offices are notoriously filthy.

More than half of the country's one billion people don't have access to toilets and are forced to defecate outside. 

That causes huge health and safety problems – particularly for women, who are often forced to wait until dark to go out to relive themselves.

But sanitation charity founder Bindeshwar Pathak says attitudes are changing, and increasingly women are refusing to marry into homes that don't have toilets.

BINDESHWAR PATHAK: The girls are now pressing hard to have toilets inside the house, and many girls, I mean married girls, they have left in-laws house because there's no toilet. 

STEPHANIE MARCH: The office cleaning blitz is part of prime minister Narendra Modi's 'Clean India' campaign to make the nation spick and span by 2019.

Aside from forcing bureaucrats to clean their own buildings, he has vowed that in five years every home will have a toilet.

Dr Pathak says what Mr Modi is doing is unprecedented.

BINDESHWAR PATHAK: It was so culturally taboo in this country to talk about toilets. There was no question of talking while having lunch or dinner – not possible. And then when the Prime Minister said that "No, we have to keep India clean. We have to build toilets in every house". So I think his message has gone down to the people. 

STEPHANIE MARCH: It will take more than office workers picking up a broom every now and then to make India clean.

But, as he takes a pause from sweeping, postal worker Prince Ghai says this feels like this is the start of something big.

PRINCE GHAI: We have started off something very basic which was very much needed for this country. So if cleanness is ensured, everything will fall in place. 

PRINCE GHAI: So you think, cleanliness is the step to a new India?

PRINCE GHAI: Yes, yes, yes. So I think it's a very big step.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Postal worker Prince Ghai ending that report from South Asia correspondent Stephanie March in New Delhi.

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