India’s Sanitation Time Bomb

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

With this mantra in mind, our honourable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on October 2, 2014. The campaign aims to clean up India’s cities, towns and villages and make India open-defecation free (ODF) by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. The ODF goal is to be achieved by the construction of 12 million toilets across the country.

Joined by government employees from all over the country, Prime Minister Modi took a cleanliness oath at India Gate: Naa Gandgai Kare, Naa Karne De (Do not litter and do not let others litter)

At the start of the mission, the whole country was swept up in the tide of Mr Modi’s vision for a clean India. The campaign has gone on to become one of the most visible and celebrated national campaigns in our history with many joining in enthusiastically. It has been endorsed by celebrities and common folk, from cricketers and Bollywood stars to vegetable vendors and homemakers; just about everyone has come out in support of the campaign in some way. There have even been instances of CEOs and office workers stepping out together with brooms to clean the streets. Whether through a 60-foot high billboard or Facebook post, everyone has something to share about their contribution to the mission.

Swachh Bharat can easily be called the flagship initiative of Mr Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister. He has been personally involved in every aspect of the mission and has worked to spread awareness at every opportunity, whether through his speeches, interviews or even Mann ki Baat. Even the tax machinery has been roped in. A Swachh Bharat tax of 0.5% is now applicable on all taxable services to help raise money for the mission.

Per data provided by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, sanitation coverage has doubled from 38.70% in October 2014 to 74.15% in December 2017. Indian states such as Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Gujarat along with union territories of Chandigarh and Daman and Diu have been declared Open Defecation Free.

In July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a groundbreaking resolution officially recognising sanitation (access to, and use of) as a human right. A basic clean toilet with a continuous supply of ample of water, and disposal it is the right of every Indian. However, there were many communities in our country, especially in rural areas, who are not even aware of this right. One of the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to create this awareness among the general population through offline initiatives at the grass root level.

The challenge though is that the focus of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been the construction of toilets all over the country. However, this does not solve our sanitation problem. The mission though noble falters in execution at multiple levels. Constructing toilets is just the first step. Very little attention is being paid to what happens after – education on the workings of the toilet, ongoing maintenance, an electrical connection to make them usable and safe at all times.

Many of these toilets have become unusable due to accumulated filth and poor plumbing that fails to provide clean water. States like UP and Bihar have always been notorious when it comes to open defecation. Though toilets have been built, the lack of solid waste management and water results in a preference for open fields. Lack of staff to maintain the toilets has left many toilets at the mercy of local goons who have either vandalised them or are using them as free storage places.

According to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan website, over 40 lakh toilets have been constructed since 2014, but the question of their maintenance remains unanswered.

Critics of the mission suggest that the money spent to publicise the mission through television, outdoor advertising an social media (a whopping 530 crores and counting) would be better spent creating awareness at the grassroots level and putting machinery in place to ensure these constructed toilets are used. They feel strongly that states cannot be declared ODF only on the basis of toilet construction. It is the usage of these facilities that determines ODF and not construction.

In urban areas, the scenario though better is not rosy either. The toilets are for the most part unusable especially outside of major metros like Mumbai. The Ministry of Urban Development released a mobile application that locates the nearest public toilet. The app also allows users to rate the toilet on cleanliness and hygiene. Again, a good idea, but the execution is flimsy and limited.

Sewage systems in urban areas have been the silent victim of poor planning and economic migration. Most of the waste generated is discharged untreated into the open drains. Even sewers are connected to common drains that either meet the local water body or stagnate in the low lying land, eventually polluting groundwater and degrading its quality. These are serious health hazards, especially in the monsoons.

While Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a recognised media success, the absence of big-picture thinking is a serious threat to the success of the mission. And it will do nothing to solve the sanitation time bomb we are sitting on. We need to collectively explore sustainable solutions that address India’s sanitation challenges holistically without compromising our environment.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

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