Swachh Bharat; Much Achieved, Some Work in Progress

India’s Swachh Bharat Mission is among the most spoken of public interventions anywhere. In a short span of six years, the nation has achieved transformative changes to enable leapfrog several steps in public health, sanitation, nutrition, and safety. From a situation where 626 million people practised open defecation (as per a 2012 WHO factsheet), we have achieved 100 per cent Open Defecation Free (ODF) status. While the building of a record 100 million rural toilets created the momentum, sharp and sustained awareness building enabled cement success on the ground. Achievement of ODF status is a key measure of the success of Swachh Bharat Mission.
The Clean India programme has been addressing several aspects in order to achieve breakthroughs in livability, hygiene and a salubrious environment. While the ODF plank is one with noteworthy success, in some other areas, it is still ‘work in progress’. Cleaning up of water bodies is one. The Clean Ganga mission is at the forefront of this effort. There have been numerous efforts by local bodies, NGOs, and citizens to make the mighty Ganga clean again. However, a combination of factors has made this a stubborn challenge which is evading a sustainable and lasting solution. Practices of the large number of visitors and pilgrims, dumping of industrial waste, and discharge of improperly treated sewage are some worrying elements. While appropriate sewage treatment facilities are being set up, the programme calls for continued injection of large doses of awareness among the common man which can result in behavioural changes to rejuvenate the iconic, most majestic, and highly revered water body in our country. Alongside we need strict monitoring and enforcement so that violations are detected and punished. We must do all it takes to preserve the most magnificent river and indeed every water body.
Another area of the Mission where we need to accelerate progress is with respect to waste management and disposal. While we have very specific and strict rules in the form of Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 and other legislation, compliance has been less than satisfactory and outcomes modest. Inspite of good amount of awareness building, compliance to elementary processes such as waste segregation has been limited. This prevents composting and recycling thereby increasing landfill volumes and the resulting environmental degradation. Just as the plastic ban initiative gained traction it has likely been rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandemic has resulted in a preference for ‘use-and-throw’ cups, plates, spoons, and forks out of concerns for hygiene and safety. We need to restore the momentum and stimulate new thinking and innovation in areas including Extended Producer Responsibility in order to manage waste sustainably. Textile/clothing waste could be an emerging threat as big as plastic. Adoption of a ‘Circular Economy’ (repair, reuse, remanufacture and recycle) here will not only limit the need for precious non-renewable raw material/resources but also cut down on the generation of waste.
There is a lot to celebrate in our march towards a Swachh Bharat. Yet we need to rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task in some areas. This issue of Urban Update deals with the subject in more detail.

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