The globality of Swachh Bharat

October 2 this year is the 149th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and also the fourth anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). India is hosting major stakeholders of global sanitation — ministers of sanitation from over 50 countries, heads of various multilateral organisations, led by the secretary general of the United Nations, and experts and policymakers in the field from around the world — at the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention or MGISC (from September 29 to October 2) in Delhi.

The MGISC promises to be one of the largest and most high-profile global gatherings on sanitation, with countries from all parts of the world coming to learn from India’s experience of implementing the biggest behavioural change campaign in the world, which has resulted in over 450 million people stopping the centuries-old practice of open defecation in only four years. There is considerable international interest in learning about the SBM’s three fundamental driving pillars — political commitment at the highest level to accelerate the sanitation agenda, adequate allocation of resources and public spending on sanitation, and mass-scale behaviour change growing into a people’s movement. Additionally, the MGISC will also allow India to gain from the experience of other countries that have successfully sustained their sanitation gains.  

The world adopted the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, with a view to ending poverty on the planet by 2030. This included the goal SDG 6.2 — dedicated to providing clean water and sanitation to all. Even before the adoption of the SDGs, however, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already, in October 2014, launched what many thought was the impossible sanitation dream: Achieving open defecation free (ODF) status in just five years, and achieving the SDG sanitation goal 11 years before the global deadline. What made the PM’s 2014 announcement even more audacious was the fact that India’s rural sanitation coverage was only 39 per cent at the time. 

Today, at over 93 per cent sanitation coverage and 450,000 villages already declared ODF, India’s share of global open defecation has shrunk from a huge 60 per cent in October 2014 to under 20 per cent in September 2018. The global community is intrigued by this dramatic decline in open defecation and eager to learn how it happened, the challenges faced along the way and how they were overcome. Many countries, particularly in Africa, which are facing their own sanitation challenges, are eager to learn how India converted the SBM into a jan andolan — a movement of the people, by the people and for the people. Specifically, how did India succeed in making toilets and cleanliness aspirational in rural India and how did the SBM generate demand for safe sanitation through intensive community mobilisation and behavioural change communication? 

Perhaps the SBM’s most crucial success factor has been the Prime Minister making the programme his personal mission. He is also the SBM’s communicator-in-chief. On the lines of the approach of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, who gave top priority to sanitation and cleanliness in the city-state, Prime Minister Modi has put swachhata right at the top of the national developmental agenda, triggering a cascading prioritisation of sanitation from the Centre to state to district to village to household. While previous sanitation programmes made incremental progress through a drip-drip approach, the SBM, underpinned by a massive public funding from the central and state governments, has initiated a quantum leap on sanitation, leading to an unprecedented behavioural change movement across the nation. 

Today, four years into this sanitation revolution, many international experts are validating the outcomes of the programme. As per a recent WHO report, it is estimated that the SBM will account for over 300,000 avoided diarrhoeal deaths by 2019. Unicef (2017) has estimated that each family in an ODF village in India saves Rs 50,000 per year on account of avoided medical costs, less sick days and value of lives saved. In the long-run, these positive outcomes will result in a healthier workforce and environment, leading to increased GDP and higher economic growth. 

A key takeaway for the world is that with strong leadership and the people’s support, big goals are achievable. The success of the SBM has now started a domino effect. Last year, President Xi Jinping is reported to have called for a “toilet revolution” to improve sanitation in China. More recently, Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, vowed to make Pakistan open defecation free in five years too. We are hopeful that after the MGISC, many more global leaders will be inspired to announce similar programmes for their countries. 

India’s focus is now to sustain the gains that have been made, and to advise and assist other countries in their journey towards achieving full sanitation coverage. Having started out as a home-grown initiative, the SBM now has the potential to branch out globally and trigger a sanitation revolution worldwide. The Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention will be an apt forum to kick start discussions in this direction and firmly establish the globality of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

The writer is Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India. Views are personal

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