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Swachh Bharat: In midst of a toilet revolution, India drowns in garbage

Even as India celebrates Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary and marks four years of Swachh Bharat, the nation seems to have dragged its feet in some key areas of sanitation and public health. At the start of the 21st century, only two out 10 Indians had access to improved sanitation facilities and 80 per cent of the country was using improved drinking water facilities. In its latest Human Development Report, the United Nations estimated 44 per cent having access to improved sanitation facilities while almost nine out of 10 people reported having access to improved drinking water facilities. The numbers may look impressive for a lower middle-income country. But India had been consistently outperformed by its neighbours and other nations in providing improved sanitation -– one of the bedrocks of a healthy disease-free population. The proportion of India’s population using improved sanitation facilities is lower than that in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam. Even Nepal, the poorest of these nations, improved its sanitation access from less than a fifth of its population to 46 per cent since 2000 –- a much better record than India’s.

It is under these circumstances that the Narendra Modi government launched the Rs 2 trillion Swachh Bharat (Clean India) programme on October 2, 2014 -– one of the first big ticket schemes to be launched by a broom wielding Prime Minister sweeping the pathways in a residential colony in central Delhi. Almost four years after its launch, the pace of toilet construction remains the single most important achievement. However, the lack of proper planning means that this achievement could be reversed in the times to come.

Modi’s toilet revolution

The Modi government has been aggressive in claiming credit for extending toilet coverage across India since it came to power with a massive campaign to highlight its achievements. The government even informed the Parliament that it had increased sanitation coverage in India from 39 per cent in 2014 to 89 per cent in 2018. According to the Census of India, almost 53 per cent of India’s 247 million households did not have a toilet in 2011. A look at the reduction in households without toilets since the last census in 21 select states in India throws up interesting trends. In 2011, there were 129 million households in these states that did not have a toilet. In 2014-15, the Modi government identified only 89 million households without toilets in these territories. In effect, between 2011 and 2014, when the Manmohan Singh government was in power at the centre, 40 million households got access to toilets. From 2015 to 2018, about 75 million household toilets were constructed in these states -– almost twice the number achieved during a comparable period by the Manmohan Singh government. There are wide interstate differences in the speed at which toilets were constructed under the two governments. In at least 16 of these states, the pace at which households got access to toilets was much higher than in the past. In particularly backward states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, three times more households got access to toilets from 2015 to 2018 than in the 2011-2014 period. In Uttar Pradesh, 13 million household toilets were constructed, while Bihar had more than six million of them being built. West Bengal saw the construction of 5.7 million toilets during this period -– again, at thrice the speed of the past. Certain north eastern states such as Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh saw a steep decline in number of households without toilets between 2011 and 2014. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the government claims to have attained near universal household toilet coverage in these states. A vindication of the feverish pace of toilet construction is also borne out by the fund utilisation of states under the mission. From 2014-15 to 2016-17, Assam got almost Rs 14 billion from the Centre -– higher than larger states like Andhra Pradesh. The enthusiasm of states in the first two years of the Swachh Bharat mission is also borne out by the fact that all had utilised more money than they were sanctioned. In 2016-17, most states utilised most of their sanctioned amounts. This was heartening for a programme in which the release of funds was demand-driven, without fixed allocations to different states on any specific parameter. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the Swachh Bharat Mission would have helped avert 300,000 deaths, apart from avoiding 14 million disability-adjusted life years by October 2019.  (See Graphic)

Open defecation free – a pipe dream

While the pace of toilet construction has been feverish, one of the most glaring loopholes in the Clean India campaign is that the government constructed more than 86 million toilets in a rush to declare habitations open defecation free (ODF) without any supporting infrastructure for their usage and maintenance. As of date, the government has declared less than half a million villages with 1.3 million habitations as ODF. These are defined by the government as areas where no human excreta is visible in the surrounding environment or village, and every household safely disposes human excrement so that faecal matter is not ingested in any form by humans again. However, according to information available with the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, the government seems to have put the cart before the horse in the race to declare most of India’s villages free from open defecation. More than half of all habitations across India declared ODF by the Modi government do not even have piped water supply -– one of the key infrastructural requirements to make people use toilets. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of the most backward states of India, where people have a strong propensity to defecate in the open, an astounding 93 per cent and 94 per cent of the habitations declared ODF by the Modi government, respectively, do not have piped water supply. The situation is no different in other long-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where more than 80 per cent of the habitations declared ODF by the government do not have access to piped water supply. Some of the best performing states in this regard are Tamil Nadu, Sikkim and Haryana, where most of the ODF habitations have piped water supply. What is perhaps even more perplexing is that the central government’s suggested survey, which is retrofitted and then used by states to verify ODF villages, doesn’t even require a village free from open defecation to have piped water. The verification process of checking the claims of ODF villages has, among other things, a check box for ascertaining ‘availability of soap and water in or near the toilet’ and ‘hand washing before meals and after defecation’. According to the government’s National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018, about 96 per cent of the ODF villages have been confirmed to fulfil all criteria to be declared free from open defecation.

Indian cities: Drowning in garbage

Another less-publicised aspect of the Swachh Bharat mission was the objective to achieve universal door-to-door collection and safe disposal of garbage in urban areas. A look at the achievements since the scheme’s launch shows that the mission has failed not only on this front, but has also lagged considerably in processing the waste collected. According to the Ministry of Urban Affairs, 63 per cent of the waste collected across 84,260 wards in all states is still dumped unprocessed. The government claims that it has achieved door-to-door waste collection in 80 per cent of wards across India. Even states that claim to have achieved high rates of door-to-door waste collection in urban areas, the amount of untreated garbage being disposed is abysmally low. For instance, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand have declared near universal door-to-door garbage collection across all their selected wards. But more than two-thirds of this waste is being disposed untreated. BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, which goes to the polls later this year, is an exception. The state stands out from the rest, having achieved not just universal door-to-door garbage collection, but also treatment of 84 per cent of its disposable waste.

The Modi government had made an allocation of Rs 74 billion for solid waste management under the Swachh Bharat mission from 2014-15 to 2019-20. The government estimates that 150,000 tonnes of waste is generated every day in India of which almost 90 per cent is collected and most of it lands up unprocessed at dumping sites. In a bid to deal with the abysmal waste disposal ecosystem, the Modi government notified the Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016. Among other measures, the rules required all local bodies having a population of more than 100,000 to set up solid waste processing facilities by 2018. It is unclear how many local bodies were able to achieve these targets. Local bodies of towns with a population of less than 100,000 were given time till 2019 to set up such facilities. Some of the rules require mass behavioural changes more than penal action for their success. For instance, the rules enumerate the duties of all Indians who generate waste. Among others, they include “segregating and storing waste in three separate streams; bio-degradable, non-biodegradable and domestic hazardous wastes in suitable bins and used sanitary waste like diapers, sanitary pads in the pouches provided by the manufacturers of these products or in a suitable wrapping material as instructed by the local authorities.”

While the Modi government has launched an information blitzkrieg using some of the biggest Bollywood celebrities to induce people to shift to cleaner habits, getting individual households to follow these rules will be a different ball game altogether. Even getting the requisite infrastructure to implement these rules seems to lie in a grey zone. Susanta Mandal, the nodal officer of Khardah municipality of Kolkata, exemplifies this dilemma. Khardah, by the way, was designated as one of India's dirtiest towns in the government’s cleanliness survey. Mandal said, “I don’t have the machines required to segregate solid and liquid waste. We have sent various letters to the Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) requesting for funds but haven’t got any money to buy the waste segregators. What can I do in such a situation?”

India 2025: Apocalypse now

While the Modi government is reported to have spent over Rs four billion in advertisements for its Clean India mission, there seems to be more than just a perception game at stake. The World Bank estimates that India will be producing 376,639 tonnes of waste every year, with most of it coming from the country's urban areas, where an estimated 535 million people live. That’s more than twice the quantity that India produces at the moment. While greater waste generation is usually linked to higher standards of living and richer populations, India’s sheer size means that it will continue to be a low middle-income country in 2025, yet generate as much waste as richer economies such as Japan, Germany and France put together. The World Bank had as far back as 1999 noted, “Individuals living in Indian urban areas use nearly twice as many resources per capita than those living in a rural setting. Because they consume and generate more solid waste, the Indian urban population is expected to produce far more waste per capita than its rural population.”

These two-decade-old predictions now distinctly manifest themselves in every big Indian city, with even the Supreme Court observing that India’s capital Delhi was drowning in a “mountain of garbage” and wondering if any resident of Delhi would be alive in the years to come, considering the emergency situation the city was facing. The country’s highest court went to the extent of suggesting dumping garbage in front of Delhi Lieutenant General Anil Baijal’s office to give the administration a wake-up call.

Delhi is but one symptom of a monstrous crisis that might hit all Indian metropolitan cities in the times to come. In 2004-05, the city was producing 5,922 tonnes of waste a day. In 2015-16, it generated 8,700 tonnes of waste a day. The amount of waste Delhi generates every day is now more than combined waste of many state capitals put together. While Delhi seems to be tethering on the brink of a garbage disaster, other Indian cities too are in the middle of a big garbage deluge, with almost two-thirds of it being dumped in the open without treatment or processing. Most of the biggest Indian cities, barring Chennai, have seen a garbage explosion from 1999-2000 to 2015-16, according to the government’s latest figures. Mumbai, India’s biggest waste-generating city, churns out 11,000 tonnes of garbage a day -– with a significant portion dumped in the Arabian Sea untreated and spewed back on the city’s streets during high tides and monsoon wind-fuelled rogue waves. This is twice the quantity that India’s financial capital generated in 1999-2000. Bengaluru generates 3,700 tonnes a day -– more than 15 times the amount it generated two decades ago. Hyderabad meanwhile has more than doubled its waste generation.

While the Modi administration launched a publicity blitzkrieg hoping that a sensory assault on Indians will induce behavioural changes and inculcate perceptions of administrative proactivity, the harder challenge will be to remove India’s filth from people’s sight and not just their minds.


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