Narendra Modi made tackling India’s sanitation woes a cornerstone of his 2014 election campaign. With the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan after the BJP’s victory in the polls, it seemed as though the government was moving towards fulfilling its promises. Almost five years on, how has the Mission benefited India and to what extent has it addressed the country’s issues surrounding sanitation?
One of the menaces Swachh Bharat sought to tackle was open defecation, an issue fuelled by limited access to facilities such as toilets across many households nationwide. According to government data, the Mission thus far has been a success.
“Since October 2, 2014, 9.24 crore (92.41 million) toilets have been constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission…[including] 2.2 million toilets built in the 2018-19 period alone”
Since October 2, 2014, 9.24 crore (92.41 million) toilets have been constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission according to figures provided by the Union Ministry for Drinking Water and Sanitation. This includes 2.2 million toilets built in the 2018-19 period alone.
The construction of new toilets has witnessed a 60.29 percent increase in the number of households with individual toilets. When the scheme was launched, just 38.7 percent of households had access its own toilet . Over the duration of the scheme thus far, this figure has jumped to 98.9 percent according to the ministry data. Of India’s approximately 640 districts, 615 have been self-declared as open defecation free (ODF). This translates to 555,146 villages which have access to toilets.
The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) for 2018-19 indicated similar success rates to those touted by the Centre. According to the NARSS data, 93.1 percent of households surveyed during the period had access to toilets. Importantly, of those with access to toilets, 96.5 percent used them. This has differed from the findings of other surveys.
“Despite the construction of toilets…open defecation continues to be practised, even by those with access toilets”
Despite the construction of toilets, a report released by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) found that open defecation continues to be practised, even by those with access to toilets. 44 percent of rural Indians continue to practise open defecation, including 23 percent of those living in households with toilets. While the overall figure of had been cut to 44 percent from almost seventy percent in 2014, the number of those practising open defecation whilst having access to their own toilet remained unchanged according to the Institute.
These figures (admittedly published earlier) tell contrasting stories of the overall success rate of Swachh Bharat, though there is a consensus that the initiative has both decreased open defecation and improved health indicators.
On-the-ground reports similarly differ from the findings produced by NARSS. As highlighted in Down to Earth, the household situation does not reflect the whole sanitation situation in India. For example, more than 22 percent of schools lack useable toilets.
“Building on the success of [Swachh Bharat] and achieving the Centre’s objective of making India 100 percent [open defecation free] by October this year could avert as many 300,000 deaths”
This is not to say Swachh Bharat has not made strides, nor produced results in terms of health. The World Health Organization (WHO) last year credited Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with preventing 180,000 deaths due to diarrhoeal disease in rural areas since the scheme’s launch. Building on the success of the scheme and achieving the Centre’s objective of making India 100 percent ODF by October this year could avert as many as 300,000 deaths because of diarrhoeal disease and malnutrition, the WHO added.
Philanthropist Bill Gates also touted the scheme, praising the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and the Centre in tackling sanitation. He stated “[they are] to be congratulated for putting a focus on sanitation because the malnutrition rates in India are substantially above what you’d expect, given the strong economic development that India’s had.” In a tweet, the tech icon said “now is the time to build on the success of [Swachh Bharat].”
The Prime Minister has taken results of the scheme as published by inspectorates as vindication. “I took a pledge of Swachh Bharat from the ramparts of the Red Fort,” the Prime Minister said in February. He asserted that political rivals had ridiculed the scheme, but “I ignored them and continued with my vision to make India clean and the results are in front of us.”
The scheme is even having an impact in other countries. In Nigeria, government officials are reportedly looking to model its own campaign to make the country ODF after Swachh Bharat.
“Uptake of toilets built under Swachh Bharat could represent a positive indication of the scheme increasing in efficacy. Yet civic duty and education provided under the scheme may only tell fragments of the whole story…[with] “coercion and threats” being commonplace.”
The NARSS data indicating that uptake of toilets built under Swachh Bharat could represent a positive indication of the scheme increasing in efficacy. Yet civic duty and education provided under the scheme may only tell fragments of the whole story.
The RICE report identified “coercion and threats” being commonplace in many villages. More than half of survey responses including mentions of such tactics being used in their locality. Those of lower castes were significantly more likely to experience such harassment.
Broadly, it seems undeniable that Swachh Bharat has been a force for good during the Modi administration in India. Discrepancies between individual findings are inevitable. However, the improvements effected to health and sanitation are observable and, so long as they continue to be monitored, there is cause for optimism that India can continue to build on its sanitation successes in years to come.
What is important that the scheme does not become a cause for mere hyperbole and that its results be inspected carefully and vigilantly monitored for the sake of ensuring continued improvements in future. The success of the scheme thus far is no cause for complacency. Improved sanitation must be an ongoing endeavour – not one that can be deemed as settled until the goal of a 100 percent ODF India is achieved.