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Does Swachh Bharat Mission Serve Its Purpose?

Shilpa Shaji |
“Total sanitation for all and a clean India is still elusive,” says a report by Parliamentary Committee on Rural Development.
Swachh Bharat Mission

Amid its efforts to achieve the ‘Open Defecation Free’ (ODF) status by 2019 with universal sanitation coverage under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), the Centre has kickstarted one-year-long celebration to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi who dreamt of ‘total sanitation for all and clean India’.

Under the mission that had been launched with two sub missions – the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) and the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) – around 86.78 million toilets have been built so far. According to the data available on the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation’ (MDWS) website, as on October 3, nearly 5.08 lakh villages have been declared ODF, and 94.65 per cent of households in the country were being “benefited” from the mission. Apart from that, 25 out of 35 states and union territories had attained the 100 per cent household coverage of toilets on paper.

As the figures talk about the “success” of the scheme, on the basis of making the toilet structure at household level, it is the high time to discuss how all these toilets are functioning and also the process of the disposal of the waste.

A Parliamentary Committee report that was submitted in Lok Sabha on July 19 had observed that Gandhi’s dream of “total sanitation for all and a clean India is still elusive” by setting aside the Centre’s hope that the country can bag the status of ODF by February 2019.

The Parliamentary Committee on Rural Development (2017-18), headed by Dr. P Venugopal of AIADMK, dismissed in the report the claim by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) that about 84 per cent of the rural areas of the country have sanitation coverage as of May 24, 2018. The report read: “The committee while examining the subject was of the view that the sanitation coverage figures seemed to be more on “Paper” but the actual progress at the ground level is very lethargic.”

“Even a village with 100 per cent household toilets cannot be declared ODF till all the inhabitants start using them. The main thrust of the Government should be on the usage of toilets as mere building of toilets alone is not sufficient for the realization of actual vision of an ODF country,” said the report.

Though the concept of SBM(G) focuses on sustainable sanitation including toilets, solid and liquid waste disposal systems to every family in the rural areas for overall village cleanliness and improvement in the general quality of the rural areas in the country, it has failed to serve the goal. “No amount of infrastructural development under Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) or SBM(G) will sustain ODF, until and unless the issue of durability and quality of construction of toilets is taken due care of.”

“The poor nature of construction and low quality of raw materials being used in the construction of toilets under SBM(G), as found by committee members and through different feedbacks,” the Committee report stated.

The infrastructure does not really help to solve the question of one of the stickiest stigmas –  open defecation. One of the main questions is the availability of water. A recent analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Down To Earth magazine says that in the water-scarce districts, the “toilets are used only during monsoon and post monsoon period when there is availability of water.”  

Using the example of Jhansi in UP, the report said, “[H]ere the usage of toilets goes down drastically during the lean period”. However, MDWS categorised such districts as “aspiration districts”. According to the ministry, the main problem of not having adequate toilet usage in these districts is the water scarcity.

Interestingly, back in 1986, Sixty-one million toilets were being built after the implementation of the first programme costing  Rs 1, 00,000 crore. However, the programme had failed to bring about any behavioural changes. The analysis says that “the march to ODF halted just after building the toilet. First, because the usage was not consistent and there was slippage in ODF status, and add to it the rampant fudging of data to chase target. Second, millions of toilets built became dysfunctional adding to the problem. Third, we couldn’t avail water supply and ensure proper solid and liquid waste management to ensure safety.” Considering these factors, it is easy to understand how India missed its earlier deadline of 2017 to make the country ODF.

How is a village or a state declared ODF?

This question has been raised since India rolled out its focused sanitation programme in 1986. BJP-led Centre’s ambitious SBM has also faced the same question that was raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

On September 19, in a report tabled in the legislative assembly of Gujarat – one of the 20 states that have declared themselves ODF under SBM – CAG said that the state’s claim of being ODF was wrong, and that the data was fudged to achieve the status. The CAG, in its audit, which covered eight districts, found that 30 per cent of the households had no toilets at all. This percentage excludes the number of houses that had toilets but did not use them.

“The state government declared all districts of Gujarat ODF by October 2, 2017. However, information provided by 120 test-checked gram panchayats for the period of 2014-17 revealed that 29 per cent households still did not have access to toilets (individual or public),” the CAG report said.

Similar incidents of fudging of data surfaced  from 155 villages in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh, following which the SBM (Gramin) secretariat issued an advisory to states and union territories regarding ODF certification in November 2017.  

According to the data for Uttar Pradesh, 94 per cent households had toilets in September 2018. But, “from 2001 to 2011 the percentage of households with toilets in UP increased only from 19.2 to 21.8,” the analysis said. “One cannot escape from suspecting that UP may have resorted to inflated reporting as in the past,” said Naresh Chandra Saxena, former secretary with the Union ministry of rural development

Is there a system in place to manage the sewage?

Once we achieve the ODF status, are there any proper systems in place to dispose the waste? Though the government focuses on solid liquid waste management, “states are hardly factoring this parameter,” the analysis said.

“Usage of toilets may not be sustainable as people are using wrong technologies,” Saxena was quoted in the analysis. “The right technology is for managing solid and liquid waste coming out of household toilets. At present single-pit, twin-pit and toilets connected to a septic tank are available technological solutions. The rich can opt for the best solution while the poor in rural as well as urban areas would not be able to afford the right technology even with the meager help from the government,” the analysis pointed out.

A majority of the rural India is still dependent on pit toilets. In such toilets, solid and liquid wastes are treated in pits. “Technically there should be two small pits of 50 cubic feet capacity but unfortunately neither the size nor the number of pits are being monitored,” Saxena added.

Practically, there is no system to manage the waste except for dumping the sewage somewhere. As per the study, even a very poor country produces 75 g/person/day of faecal matter. Going by that calculation, a minimum of 59,000 tonnes will be produced at the household level per day in the country that has 144 million toilets in total.

“Without the right toilet this faecal matter would be dumped close to our habitation and would affect the soil and the various sources of water. If the poorly-designed toilets are in an inundation-prone area, the stored faeces pose a major pollution and health hazard during the monsoons. Further, the high density of pit latrines and poorly made and maintained septic tanks can render the shallow aquifer water unfit for drinking because of nitrate and bacterial contamination,” said the report.

Above all, who cleans the collected waste? Of course, the sanitation workers would be compelled to do it manually since we still rely on manual scavenging. Why is the country struggling to eliminate this inhuman occupation that takes the life of one person in every five days? Why don’t we give priority to proper waste disposal before building toilet-like structures? Since the government is building toilets everywhere in the country to yield the status of ODF country, all these questions need to be addressed to achieve a Swachh Bharat.

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