Every once in a while a story slips through the media net that might have received more attention at a different time.

A week before Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented this year’s budget to the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi met Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in Delhi. The fact that he thus became probably the first Prime Minister anywhere to devote time to a social media executive should not surprise us—he has, for some time now, shown his considerable penchant for 21st century methods of mass communication. That he asked her, in his own words, “about ways through which a platform such as Facebook can be used for governance and better interaction between the people and governments” is fascinating too, and I can’t wait to see what new methods of government-citizen interaction emerge from their conversation. But what I found most striking was the news that the key issue Modi asked Sandberg to help India with was sanitation.

Public hygiene was, of course, one of the topics that candidate Narendra Modi had raised in his election speeches, and it featured among the issues mentioned by Prime Minister-elect in his first public address in Varanasi after his victory. Many will recall the backlash he received from his usual supporters on the Hindu right when he declared some months ago that toilets were more important to him than temples. Still, it seems an odd topic to raise with a Facebook executive. The Economic Times reported that when asked by Sandberg how her company could help the Prime Minister achieve his objectives, he mentioned sanitation. “India has vast tourism potential but poor cleanliness standards hold it back,” the paper reports Modi as telling the Facebook COO.

On the face of it, it’s an odd request. But the Prime Minister confirmed it was raised, in his own Facebook post: India intends, he declared, “to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary year (2019) with a special focus on cleanliness and I spoke to Ms. Sandberg on how Facebook can assist us in this endeavour.”

How exactly will Facebook do that? It is quite common these days for techno-enthusiasts to turn to social media for pretty much everything … but cleaner streets? Better waste disposal? More and cleaner public toilets? Surely matters like open defecation are far too tangibly physical to lend themselves to “virtual” solutions? The call of nature, after all, doesn’t occur in cyberspace, but in the real and limited public space we all live in, and for too many of our fellow Indians, in open fields, against walls, and on our roadsides.

There isn’t much detail on offer from Sandberg herself. Sure enough, she publicized the meeting on Facebook. The Indian Prime Minister “believes that direct communication with people all over the world is critical to effective governance and he plans to continue using Facebook and other social media to communicate with the people of India and the world,” Sandberg revealed. No surprises there. But sanitation didn’t feature big in her post. “The prime minister asked us to develop local content and reach out to more languages,” Sandberg declared (Facebook is currently available in nine Indian languages). So can we look forward to multilingual versions of that quaint wall-sign, “Make No Nuisance?”

Jokes apart, how exactly would Facebook “assist the government in all its endeavours,” as Sandberg is believed to have assured Modi? More precisely, how would Facebook help India address its vexed, visible and smelly problems of public hygiene?

No clue. Apparently when Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked Sandberg about the areas in which Facebook could assist the Indian government, she replied by proposing “cooperation in the fields of health and education, referring to her experience as a World Bank research assistant in Madhya Pradesh in 1991,” according to the Economic Times again, the only publication that seems to have taken an interest in the content of the meeting.

What little we know officially about the entire episode, in other words, raises more questions than it answers. One obvious use of social media outlets like Facebook is in putting out information about what the government is doing and seeking public participation, suggestions and feedback as inputs into the process. Doing this for a campaign on sanitation would not only raise public awareness—the usual “agenda setting” function of any media, including social media —but also promote civic engagement. Since Facebook has 100 million users in India, a number that keeps growing, it could serve as the catalyst for a major national effort to engage the Indian public in the cause of improving public hygiene. (And, since Modi is nothing if not a shrewd politician, add to his support base of followers and fans, and expand his multi-million strong list of potential backers in the next election.)

But—there is a “but.” The sanitation problem is neither caused by, nor affects the basic existence of, the 100 million Indians who are educated enough to use Facebook. It’s a nuisance and an inconvenience to have around us, but India’s internet users are unlikely to live in homes without toilets, or have to take a lota to the fields in the morning, or seek to perform our ablutions when it’s too dark to be observed. The challenge of addressing public sanitation in our country is to reach those who suffer those privations.

So Facebook can serve as a springboard, but not as an exclusive platform. It can at best help kick-start the process of constructing a virtual community to mount a campaign on cleanliness. But to reach and help the people most affected, the government will need grassroots engagement, and Facebook can’t provide that by itself. It will take a concerted effort by central and state governments, political workers, the best brains in the advertising community, the most committed activists in the non-profit sector, and sanitation specialists like Sulabh International, to come together in a massive public education effort that actually mobilizes people to transform our culture of public hygiene.

And even that won’t be enough. Awareness is half the battle, but only half. Then the government will actually have to go out and build the toilets, install the dustbins, improve the drainage facilities, create waste management systems and improve public sanitation. You can’t do that on Facebook, Modiji. But getting the denizens of social media to spend more time on toilets than trolling would be a good place to start.

Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century. This article was first published on NDTV.

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