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Swachh Bharat Mission on track

To accomplish Swachh Bharat Mission, the Centre should solely focus on making cleanliness a mass movement and not get entangled in the numbers game.

Swachh Bharat Mission on track

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has rightly termed the recently released report by WaterAid, an international charity organisation, on the global sanitation scenario, as factually incorrect for quoting data from the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme with regard to India for the period 2000-2015 and ignoring the significant progress that the country had made under the Swachh Bharat Mission in eradicating open defecation after the year 2015.

While there is no doubt that the Swachh Bharat Mission still has a long way to go in its objective of eradicating open defecation, but at the same time, it can't be denied that the report titled 'Out of Order – The State of the World's Toilets 2017' does in a way mislead readers with its outdated facts and figures concerning the sanitation situation in India. What makes the report even more flawed is the claim made in the introduction that 'new' data from UNICEF and WHO's Joint Monitoring Programme had been relied upon to reveal the countries where women were struggling most to access a toilet and highlight those that had made considerable progress in that direction.
Having said that, it is equally important to admit that providing access to basic sanitation for all in the country still remains an uphill challenge, even 70 years after Independence. Though India is the world's second most populous country and now an emerging economic powerhouse, on the sanitation front, it has failed to keep up with the population growth. And in the process, overlooked the right to basic sanitation for everyone everywhere. This in no way reflects upon the intent or the sincerity of the efforts being put in by the present NDA government at the Centre. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the country's largest ever sanitation programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission, on October 2, 2014, with the vision of achieving a Clean India by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Divided into two components – Urban and Rural – it has been receiving substantial budgetary allocation from the present government at the Centre since then.
The Union Budget 2017-18 allocated a total of Rs. 16,248 crore for the Swachh Bharat Mission. The Finance Minister's budget speech had highlighted the improvement in sanitation coverage in rural India from 42 per cent in October 2014 to about 60 per cent.
Let us now look at how the outdated figures cited in the WaterAid report led to projection of a distorted picture of the state of sanitation in the country, thereby seriously undermining the government's efforts aimed at achieving the objective of Swachh Bharat.
As per the report, India topped the list of 10 worst countries for access to basic sanitation in terms of numbers with 732,207,000 people without access to at least basic sanitation. The other countries on that list included China, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Kenya. Whereas 25 per cent of the population in China and 32 per cent in Indonesia didn't have access to basic sanitation, in case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, the percentage shot up considerably to 53 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, it claimed. The report, based on outdated figures, calculated that 56 per cent of the population in India lacked access to atleast basic sanitation, placing the country behind China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, in terms of percentage of population without access to atleast basic sanitation. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has refuted this figure, stressing that the percentage of those lacking access to safe sanitation was down to 28 per cent at present.
There is no denying that the lack of or inadequate access to basic sanitation in India places women and girls in a distressing and vulnerable position. But the report actually went way overboard when it pointed out that a staggering 355 million women and girls were still waiting for a toilet, further becoming overly dramatic by adding that if all of them were to stand in queue, the same would stretch around the earth more than four times. Again, this figure has been rejected by the MoDWS since the same WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme document, quoted by WaterAid in its report, had confirmed that the total number of people defecating in the open in the country had fallen to 350 million, as on June 2017. According to the Ministry, that figure is now down to less than 300 million.
The WaterAid report did, however, acknowledge that India was making immense progress in improving access to sanitation because of the Swachh Bharat Mission, with 52 million household toilets built between October 2014 and November 2017. It ranked India among top 10 best countries for reducing open defecation by percentage. With a 26.1 percentage point decrease in people practising open defecation between 2000 and 2015, the country was listed sixth after Ethiopia, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, and Pakistan. The report also placed India among top ten best improved countries for basic sanitation by percentage, ranking it tenth after Laos, Lesotho, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia, with a 22.5 percentage point increase in access to at least basic sanitation during the period 2000 and 2015.
Though the WaterAid report paints a dismal picture about the overall sanitation coverage in India, the truth is that the Swachh Bharat Mission has made great progress in the recent period with sanitation coverage improving from 41.8 per cent in October 2014 to 65.07 per cent in July 2017, according to the MoDWS. A total of 2,09,099 villages, 95,521 gram panchayats, 1,411 blocks, and 149 districts had been declared Open Defecation Free as on July 17, 2017. In addition, the states of Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Haryana, had been declared ODF.
Undoubtedly, the Swachh Bharat Mission, despite the Centre's best efforts, continues to face several tough challenges. Perhaps, the biggest challenge of them all is bringing about a behaviour change in the society, given that open defecation had been practised and considered largely acceptable across large parts of the country for ages due to a host of reasons. Most of these challenges, however, are surmountable with mass participation of the people of this country. For that, it is imperative that the government does not get distracted by performance reports prepared by outside agencies, like the one by WaterAid, or get too caught up with numbers and targets. The focus, instead, should be solely upon making cleanliness a mass movement, not just until October 2019 but beyond, and the desired results will follow.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Debdeep Chakraborty

Debdeep Chakraborty

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