Swachh Bharat Mission: It’s all about numbers

As Swachh Bharat Mission is racing towards its 2019 deadline, a CAG report reveals that sanitation is not a one-time exercise and there is a need to look beyond the deadline.
Sanitation is not just about constructing toilets. (Image: India Water Portal)
Sanitation is not just about constructing toilets. (Image: India Water Portal)

We have just a year to go for Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) deadline of making India open-defecation free (ODF). In the last four years, the government has built 86.08 million toilets (as on September 26, 2018) throughout the country as a part of this flagship programme on providing safe sanitation to all by October 2019.

As per the government estimates, sanitation coverage in rural India has increased from 38.7 percent on October 2, 2014, to over 94.01 percent on September 26, 2018. Over 4.73 lakh villages and more than 472 districts have been declared ODF. A large-scale survey by the World Bank on the usage of toilets pegs it at above 90 percent.

As per a report by the United Nations, SBM has played a key role in reducing under-five mortality rates by four points in just a year. Close to 200,000 children under the age of five in India, who would have otherwise lost their lives to treatable diseases like diarrhoea, have been saved in two years, says the report. Access to safe drinking water and insisting on hand washing, food safety, and the use of toilets to stop open defecation are all factors that have lowered diarrhoeal deaths, as per the report.

Pursuing targets with many slip backs

A recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on SBM points out that the claims of Uttarakhand and Gujarat, which have declared themselves ODF are not true. The CAG picked holes in SBM by citing how both the states have reported nonexistent toilets on paper.

The survey of 120 villages in Gujarat’s eight districts—Dahod, Banaskantha, Chhotaudepur, Dang, Patan, Valsad, Jamnagar and Junagadh—during 2014-17 reveals that toilets constructed under the SBM in 41 villages cannot be used as they have no water connection while 15 villages have no toilets at all, says the CAG report. Yet, Gujarat was declared ODF in October 2017. Defunct toilets were tagged as newly constructed ones.

The CAG report goes on to say that in Uttarakhand, which was declared ODF in May 2017, “more than 70 percent of the toilets were built without any expert guidance and in several areas, they were unusable owing to either a lack of water connection or because they were built within household premises”. 


Is it just about counting toilets?

A recent study conducted by Accountability Initiative, a research group of the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank based in New Delhi, too brings into question the hurry in declaring villages ODF and the authenticity of the verification process.

This study done in nine gram panchayats declared ODF in Udaipur, Rajasthan points to improper access to toilets, incomplete toilet construction and rampant open defecation among households with a toilet. Of the nine gram panchayats, only one had 100 percent access to toilets. The study also notes that 38 percent of toilet owners defecated in the open on the day of the survey.

According to the study, “despite the importance given to behaviour change in the Swachh Bharat Mission guidelines and to demand generation in the community, it wasn’t always implemented on the field”. Coercive tactics such as removal of names from public distribution system and threats by administration and gram panchayats were common.

At certain places, toilets in households have increased the drudgery of village women as they have to fetch water from faraway sources for toilet use.

Safe disposal of faecal matter neglected

Contamination of surface soil, groundwater and surface water is rampant across ODF villages, defeating the objective of the Mission. A recent study supported by Arghyam points to emerging evidence of groundwater contamination, highlighting linkages between groundwater quality and sanitation systems. Adequate attention ought to have been paid to the type, design and construction of toilets and containment systems and their maintenance as per standards. The focus was on meeting targets and as a result, enough attention was not paid to operations and management.

Burden on manual scavengers

The SBM is being widely criticised as it fails to address the issue of manual scavenging and its silence on the link between caste and waste disposal which is highlighted in the study by Accountability Initiative. As much as 86 percent of respondents said they would call manual scavengers to empty their pits when required. Given the preference for septic tanks and unavailability of mechanised suction machines in rural India, villagers either stop using the toilets or employ manual scavengers.  

The recent incidents of septic tank deaths has taken the sheen off the SBM and has highlighted the need to break the link between caste and occupation. These deaths took place because the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, were not followed. The employer did not ensure safety precautions by providing protective gear and cleaning equipment to the person cleaning the sewer.

There is a four-tier setup for enforcement of the Act, but as per a Centre for Policy Research brief, the capacity and associated institutions for implementing this process appear to be lacking even in the national capital. It is pointless to set to achieve the Swachh Bharat Mission without tackling this issue.

Sustaining the progress

The statistics from the 2021 census and the next round of National Family and Health Survey may provide a better picture of the SBM’s performance. Though a great start, just creating physical infrastructure by setting up toilets instead of focusing on behaviour change may not be a solution.

Even if the country makes significant gains in sanitation, the sewage, faecal and septage sludge management would still be a challenge. It is absolutely necessary to include these as part of SBM’s core initiatives to sustain the gains and transition from open-defecation free to open-defecation free plus.

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