As Mahatma Gandhi quoted, ‘Sanitation is more important than Independence,’ ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ or ‘Clean India Mission’ is a campaign that aims at cleaning up roads, infrastructures, streets, rural areas, smaller towns and cities of the country. The aim of this mission, run by the Government of India, was achieving Open-Defecation Free India by constructing 90 million toilets in rural areas of the country by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. India will also reach Sustainable Development Goal Number 6 (SDG 6) by achieving this mission. After five years of its working, the Mission, the Narendra Modi government’s flagship programme for personal hygiene and cleanliness, calls for evaluation and stocktaking, fittingly on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Prime Minister Modi has declared that the country is now open defecation-free, with more than 110 million toilets having been built in these five years in towns and villages and 600 million people having been given access to them. Sanitation programmes like the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan have existed in the country before 2014. But Modi deserves congratulations for redoing the programme, conceiving it on a national scale and pursuing its implementation with zeal and earnestness. It is one of the best schemes to be implemented by any government in the country, with a transformational impact on personal and social attitudes, individual and family economies and the health of citizens.
The achievements of the mission are worthy and laudable. But there are questions about its implementation and impact that need to be answered better, and many of the claims made about it have not been proved correct on the ground. The country is not defecation-free even now, and independent surveys have shown that over 40 per cent of the people in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan defecate in the open. The access to toilets is not total, and even when there are toilets they are not always used. Non-availability of water and traditional notions of purity are among the issues that prevent full use of toilets. The quality of toilets constructed in many places is below par, discouraging people from using them. In some places, people are offered reimbursement of expenses after the toilets are built, but many families do not have the money to build them. Coercion or shaming of people has also been seen in the implementation of the programme by officials.
This is a negative and counter-productive way of implementation. It should be noted that building toilets is only one part of the programme. It is also about the disposal of solid waste and garbage, sanitation in common spaces in rural and urban areas, public cleanliness and proper drainage and sewerage. The terrible practice of manual scavenging still exists in many parts of the country. These issues need to be tackled and only then can claims of full achievement of goals be made. There is a need for attitude and behaviour changes with more effective campaigning and education, and more efficient use of resources in dealing with all aspects of sanitation. While the country can be happy with the achievements which have been made, wrong and premature claims can set the programme back.