- October 2nd 2019 was Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, it was also the anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
- Speaking in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India “open defecation-free”.
- Open defecation free is broadly defined by the absence of visible faeces in the environment.
What is the government’s strategy?
To achieve its goals under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the government outlined a three-pronged strategy:
- using social messaging, education and communication to trigger behaviour change
- providing subsidies to vulnerable social groups to help them construct latrines at home
- Verifying and monitoring the continued use of these latrines through surveys and social audits.
A look at numbers
- In the past five years, the Indian government has built 100 million toilets.
- This implies that it constructed 38 toilets every minute that had passed since the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. With a country as large as India, this is a big achievement.
But has this led to open defecation society in reality?
- Many reports have found that several people in villages across India, including the national capital, were still forced to defecate in open due to lack of toilets, especially in impoverished colonies.
- People in few pockets in the states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have functional latrine but have continued to defecate in the open.
- Most believe that emptying even a decomposed latrine pit would be ritually polluting and would cause them to become an outcaste.
- Scarcity of water
- Household water connections were not available and therefore toilets constructed under SBM could not be used.
- Many people are still relieving themselves in the open due to lack of water connectivity
- The government has been making ODF declarations on the basis of latrine ownership rather than actual latrine use.
Other areas that need introspection
- Triggering behavioural change through “Information, Education and Communication” is one of the key components of Swachh Bharat. The Mission has been given the highest advertising and promotion budget from the Centre compared to other schemes.
- Most of those funds have been directed towards media publicity on radio, TV or in print, rather than on grassroots-level awareness campaigns.
- India generates over 150,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day. Only 83% of waste is collected and less than 30% is treated. As noted above, the government has chosen to prioritise toilet construction at the cost of waste management services.
- Lives of manual scavengers across Indian cities do not seem to have changed much in the years of SBM.
- Many rural Indians were threatened with or even denied their legal rights, such as PDS ration, for not building a latrine. Officials resorted to threats of fines and jail terms to intimidate people in some places.
- The spirit of bidding farewell to open defecation as a gift to Gandhi deserves accolades. But we must not forget that there are still miles to go.
- India needs to have a sanitation policy that focuses on reducing open defecation. And most importantly, it should follow Gandhi’s path of ahimsa and compassion.