We are almost at the fourth anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission, which makes this an opportune time to look at what makes it tick. The numbers speak for themselves, including the unprecedented increase in toilet coverage, and the resultant health and financial gains. Sanitation coverage in rural India increased from 38 per cent in 2014 to over 92 per cent in 2018 and 8.5 crore toilets have been constructed in rural India since the Mission began. Usage of toilets as per a recent, large-scale survey under the World Bank support project is also above 90 per cent. More than 4.5 lakh villages and over 450 districts have been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF).
These notable achievements of the Mission are expected to result in significant health, economic and social benefits. As per a recent WHO report, it is estimated that SBM will account for over 3 lakh avoided diarrhoeal deaths by the time India becomes free from open defecation – a milestone not too far from us today. UNICEF (2017) has estimated that each family in an ODF village in India saves Rs 50,000 per year on account of avoided medical costs, less sick days and value of lives saved.
How Swachh Bharat is different
While India has had schemes for sanitation for decades now, Swachh Bharat has surged ahead due to reasons that make the Mission unique. Primary among these is the strong political will and inspiring leadership behind the programme, with the Prime Minister of the country championing the cause at national and international levels. Swachh Bharat Mission has always found references in his monthly Mann ki Baat addresses and other public speeches, inspiring the masses to be part of this Jan Andolan. It is his personal drive towards this Mission that has further encouraged other senior political leaders including Union Ministers, State CMs, MPs, MLAs to spread the message of Swachhata in their region. Subsequently, government officers have put the sanitation agenda on priority.
The Mission’s emphasis on behaviour change, and focus on outputs rather than outcomes also makes it stand ahead of its previous counterparts, which focussed primarily on the construction of toilets and bathrooms, mistakenly assuming use of toilets as a given. The Swachh Bharat Mission has followed the demand-driven approach as opposed to the supply-driven outlook.
Decentralised monitoring and use of technology
The Swachh Bharat Mission also focuses heavily on measuring outputs in terms of monitoring progress of ODF villages and districts. The guidelines for declaring a village and district ODF are well-defined and communicated to all States. Villages declared ODF are verified within three months of a declaration by block and district officials. More than 80 per cent of villages declared ODF has been verified successfully. In case of any gaps identified during verification, block officials are informed and asked to take corrective measures in a timely manner. Even toilets constructed are to be geotagged mandatorily so as to ensure the quality and usage of toilets. Verification and geotagging are also linked to funding release of funds to States so as to safeguard against slippages in verification and geotagging protocols. Technology is also being used heavily for capacity building at scale through virtual learning and a master trainer ecosystem.
Progress in aspirational districts
The Government of India has launched the Aspirational Districts programme to improve the socio-economic conditions in 117 backward districts in the country. The programme, led by NITI Aayog, focuses on five key themes including water and sanitation infrastructure. All themes these have a direct bearing on the quality of life and economic productivity of citizens. Swachh Bharat Mission has been able to deliver successfully deliver in these challenging districts as well. The rural sanitation coverage in these districts is almost at par with the national sanitation coverage, which speaks volumes about the program’s overarching impact across the entire nation.
The way forward: Sustaining the progress
Based on the current rate of progress, the entire country will achieve ODF status well before the end of the programme. Unfair criticisms notwithstanding, a fair question to ask is, what next? The country has once experienced the pitfalls of considering sanitation a one-time exercise. Many villages in the country were handed Nirmal Gram Puraskars with great fanfare a few years back. Yet, a few years down the line, it was found that many of these had slipped back to old ways. The country was littered with dysfunctional toilets which the government had built, but the people had not used. To ensure the sustainability of the programme, the SBM guidelines incentivise on-ground Swachhagrahis to continue their door-to-door messaging, regular verifications and early morning nigrani visits to open defecation hotspots in the village long after it has been declared ODF. A long-term strategy is also being developed by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation to ensure that the gains made will be sustained and also to transition from ODF to ODF Plus.
Lately, I have been reading a few articles poking holes in the success of the Mission. To all the friends writing these pieces, for a massive developmental programme being implemented at this large-scale, there are bound to be gaps in isolated cases. The responsibility of the fourth pillar of democracy is to highlight these gaps in a productive manner to help the government address them. To those criticising the drive based on isolated incidents, without sound evidence, I say, reflected glory is a powerful driving force. And nothing gives you access to reflected glory in our times than criticising the most successful sanitation programme in the history of not just our country, but the world.