What lies ahead for ‘Swachh Bharat’?

Government of India’s flagship mission to improve India’s sanitation level, the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, was launched with the intent to rid India of the malpractice of open defecation and reinvigorate Gandhi’s message of cleanliness and sanitation. With the deadline of the project up with Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Urban Update sought to understand the effectiveness and future of the movement from experts

The nation-wide campaign was set to get rid of the practice of open defecation across India on the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma with the vision of ensuring hygiene, waste management and sanitation across the country. Official objectives of the campaign were set:

  • To eradicate the system of open defecation in India.
  • To convert the insanitary toilets into pour flush toilets.
  • To remove the system of manual scavenging.
  • To make people aware of healthy sanitation practices by bringing behavioural changes in people.
  • To link people with the programs of sanitation and public health in order to generate public awareness.
  • To build up the urban local bodies strong in order to design, execute and operate all systems related to cleanliness.

The core issue of the first edition of the movement was to eradicate the malpractice of open defecation in India. The age old practice of open defecation has been widespread in India for centuries. Some religious texts propagated that building a toilet inside the house simply means making it impure and brings disrespect to the Gods one worship at home and is therefore, an impure and condemned act. The issue is India’s biggest health hazard to date and one which has been targeted to eliminated since a long time. Many experts believe that the problems caused by open defecation are the reason that 50 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. Getting rid of it would also prove to be economical. An independent survey was conducted by UNICEF across 10,000 households in 12 states of the country to measure the economic impact of sanitation at household level. The cost-benefit ratio of a household found in the study was 430 per cent in fully ODF communities.
‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ has been widely popular, owing to the massive promotional campaigns carried out by the government and on-paper, the achievements made by the government in effecting behavioral change in people by sensitising them to the issue reflect the success of the mission. Official figures have claimed the following progress:

  • 58,46,107 Individual Household Latrines (IHHLs) and 4,99,006 community & public toilets have been built in urban India
  • 10,07,70,270 IHHLs have been built in rural India
  • 699 of India’s 731 districts are open-defecation free (ODF), covering 599,963 ODF villages
  • 35 states and union territories are open-defecation free
  • 63.3 per cent of rural population in India is said to practice Solid and Liquid Waste Management (SLWM)

In addition to this, the government also aimed to use human excreta for energy generation and production of natural fertilizers. All in all, the policy, if implemented successfully, would end the practice of open defecation in India through awareness campaigns and by making IHHL and public toilets available to the entire population of the country.
To better understand the effectiveness and future of the project, Urban Update spoke with Sushmita Sengupta, Programme Manager, Water & Sanitation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), who has led researches on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s effect across India.

On paper, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) has depicted tremendous outcomes. But how, in your opinion, has the movement fared at the ground level?
The issue of open defecation has not been raised at such a scale in India. Our country has been tackling the issue of sanitation since 1986. Various programs have been implemented over the course of time but none have actually met the deadlines set. This is actually the first time when public toilets have been constructed throughout the nation at this scale. As a result, 100 per cent toilet coverage has been reflected in the data. When the research team from CSE travelled to various parts of India, our observations were mixed. Huge numbers of toilets have been built without a doubt, but the question of sustainability still arises. We need water and suitable technology for management and disposal of sewage. Government claims toilets are connected to pits or septic tanks. Mismanagement of sewage can be caused when either of these waste management technologies fails to follow norms. We think the next edition of SBA should be focused on the treatment and management of waste.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been touted as the world’s biggest behavioral change campaign. How do you sustain this behavioral change that the government claims to have instilled in citizens with this Abhiyan?
We have seen that this campaign has been readily accepted and followed in many parts of India. In our visit to Churu’s Taranagar block we found that people were in fact demanding the construction of toilets for the safety and security of women and in Faridabad, people required it for health purposes. But, there are also places where people have gone back to the practice of open defecation too. In Jhansi, where toilet coverage has been provided, people weren’t using it and still going out. So the behavioral change aspect is true to a certain extent. The program could have focused more on the information, education and communication (IEC) aspect in order to promote the usage of the public toilets better.
Another aspect of sustaining this behavior change is to efficiently manage these toilets like I have said before. If the toilets are clean and working, people would be encouraged to use them.

Bihar still hasn’t achieved the ODF status while some states have achieved the ODF++ status. What are the challenges faced by the state?
We surveyed the villages near Ganga in Bihar for our study because if the technology used there is not correct the river would get polluted. We observed that the toilets developed there were not suitable for use. They were using toilet beds in areas where the water level was low, causing overflowing of excreta. So, maybe the usage was low because the toilets that were available weren’t apt.
What are the improvements that can still be made to improve the sanitary conditions of Indian cities?
PM Modi said in his speech on October 2, that achieving ODF would be the first step in the cleaning of India. For other aspects of improving sanitation, like solid and sewage management, more needs to be done and focusing on them should be the next priority for the movement. If you go through the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey of 2017 and 2018, the focus is only on the hygienic maintenance of toilets rather than complete maintenance of sanitation in villages and hence other aspects of maintaining hygiene like solid waste management, cleanliness etc. get ignored, which is wrong. A few districts in India have done commendable work in focusing on complete sanitation maintenance. For example, Udupi of Karnataka has launched some pilot projects on solid waste management which show promise. Hence, we can see the work on improving other aspects of sanitation is also being done. It is just not highlighted enough.

Will the scheme continue? What can possibly be the government’s focus further if the campaign continues?
The mission would definitely continue. The major concern for us is the sustainability because if the proper management of the recently developed public convenience is ignored, then the whole exercise would be futile. Other aspects like the ban on single-use plastic, which is a major concern for urban and rural India, solid waste management, amongst others would be focused upon in the second edition of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

In conclusion, would you rate the program as a success?
Compared to the other plans launched since 1986, ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ has been the most effective in improving the cleanliness and sanitation of the country. We only believe if the mission needs to be completely successful, the second edition of the mission must work on the management of the toilets built during the first five years.

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