How ‘Swachh’ Did India Get In The Last Five Years?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, according to the government’s data, has met its target.
Launched on Oct. 2, 2014, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the nationwide campaign aimed to end open defecation in the country through construction of household and community toilets while trying to bring about a behavioural change. Modi, along with several high-profile names, championed for the cause that would contribute to India achieving one of United Nation’s sustainable development goals.
More than nine crore toilets have been launched since Modi’s clarion call from Red Fort, New Delhi five years ago, according to the Swachh Bharat website. Open defecation has nearly been eliminated from a country where squatters were once easily sighted, it said. The government has spent over Rs 50,000 crore for facilitating building of toilets through a subsidy programme and running educational campaigns for public awareness. In the process, nearly every state has now declared itself free of any open defecation.
The Indian government estimates that more than 50 crore people have stopped defecating in the open since the country began its toilet building spree.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, which won praise from Unicef, WHO, World Bank and most recently from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has significantly improved accessibility of toilets to Indians. As of 2019, eight out of 10 households had their own toilets while the rest relied on either shared or community toilets, according to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey.
The survey, which covered over 90,000 households in more than 6,000 villages across India, also found that for every fifty functional toilets, there was only one that was not functional.
Besides, a large number of people were also disposing of the solid waste safely. Only 4 percent disposed solid waste indiscriminately.
Defecating in the open is a health hazard. Not only does it contaminate food, water and soil, it also exponentially increases the risk of diarrhea and protein-energy malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation. It also has hidden costs associated with dignity, self esteem and women's safety.
Then come the economic costs. By 2015, India was losing Rs 12.2 lakh crore due to unsafe sanitation—a significant portion of its gross domestic product.
Just by eliminating open defecation, India can improve household savings, according to a study by Unicef. Including savings from medical costs, property value and the intangible value of time and lives saved, if India achieves 100 percent toilet usage then it will result in annual savings of Rs 50,952 per household.
‘Swachhata’ With A Pinch Of Salt
While on paper the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has been an absolute success, some independent reports have raised questions about its effectiveness on ground.
The most prominent one, carried out by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics and covering Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, listed contrasting findings to what the official data suggests.
The study noted that despite the rapid building of toilets, nearly 44 percent of the people still defecated in the open. That was better than 70 percent in 2014. “Open defecation rates vary across north India, but, despite an active Swachh Bharat Mission implementation in many districts, open defecation has not been eliminated from any of the districts we studied,” it said.
It also noted coercion and threats by local officials to achieve toilet construction. “Despite claims to the contrary, open defecation unfortunately is still a pressing problem in rural India.”
To eliminate open defecation from rural India, coercive tactics should be stopped and latrine use should be encouraged alongside efforts to transform the social attitudes that have made open defecation so prevalent and challenging to address in the past.Changes In Open Defecation In Rural North India: 2014 - 2018 By R.I.C.E
But the government, in an official response, termed the study “biased” and “rife with gaps in methodology”.