A laudable achievement

One of the signature programmes of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which was launched five years ago on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, October 2. It followed up on Mr Modi’s laudable decision to highlight the problem of sanitation and cleanliness in his first speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, on Independence Day 2014. In many ways, the SBM is representative of many of the missions of the NDA government; it takes an existing scheme under a Central line ministry and adds enthusiasm, public engagement and implementation energy to the mix. This combination has led to the NDA’s most notable successes, including the Jan Dhan programme for access to bank accounts and the sanitation component of the SBM. The government has sharply accelerated toilet-building in rural India and, according to its statistics, almost all Indian households now have access to toilets. By any standards, regardless of questions about usage and the reliability of statistics, this is a worthy aim and an admirable achievement. 

However, questions should indeed be asked along three axes. First, is the sanitation and waste disposal task indeed as complete as suggested ? Second, are the institutional bases for the SBM firm enough to ensure a sustainable change in Indian public hygiene and cleanliness ? And third, is the SBM too narrow-focused on toilet-building ? Of these questions, the first is most controversial, but perhaps has the clearest answer. The statistics from the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDW) have been challenged by independent researchers. A study released by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics insisted that, in spite of official claims to the contrary, 44 per cent of those living in rural areas of the heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan continue to defecate in the open in spite of a spike in the increase in access to toilets. These figures underline questions about MDW claims regarding sanitation that date back to the Census 2011 and the National Family Health Survey. The most objective interpretation of these disparities is that a gap between availability and usage continues to plague the SBM. More independent evaluation is necessary. 

However, on its fifth anniversary, it should be noted that the SBM was not supposed to be about just the disposal of solid waste. It is supposed to be about more than sanitation — it is about public cleanliness, particularly clean cities with proper drainage and garbage disposal. This aspect of the SBM, which had no effective ministry-run scheme to draw on, could have seen better performance. The ministry of urban development runs a contest for the cleanest Indian city, the results of which are usually greeted with derision by most cities’ residents. This is in spite of exceptional citizen engagement, with volunteers taking the lead to clean up public spaces in many areas. The problem here is that such volunteerism is no replacement for the institutional architecture, such as empowered and accountable local government, that would genuinely guarantee cleaner towns. Even the sustainability of dry latrines which will need to be emptied after a few years can be questioned. The Indian state is good at missions that target one thing, and less good at administrative reform that improves people’s lives sustainably. Swachh Bharat, in spite of its many laudable achievements, is a reminder that this broad trend still holds good.


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