New Delhi: Sushila Khurkute, a resident of Nandgaon village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district never had access to a toilet; neither when she was growing up nor during her first two pregnancies. Infact, during her pregnancy she would not eat enough for the fear of having to go to defecate in the open. It is only in 2017, during her third pregnancy, then 30-year-old Sushila decided to get a toilet. The firm determination made seven months pregnant Sushila dig a hole for three days, in order to construct two toilet blocks as part of the central government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Today, Sushila goes door-to-door to educate people about the importance of a toilet and has relayed the message that where there is a will, there is a way.

For 3 Days This Pregnant Woman Dug A Hole Near Her House. All For A Toilet
Sushila Khurkute dug a hole near her house for three days

Also Read: For 3 Days This Pregnant Woman Dug A Hole Near Her House. All For A Toilet

It is because of the efforts of people like Sushila and government that today rural India has achieved the coveted tag of open defecation free (ODF) and over 94 per cent of the urban local bodies (ULBs) are ODF.

Declaring the rural India ODF, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of not just Indian independence but also cleanliness, said, “Today, rural India, its villages have declared themselves open-defecation free. They have used self-inspiration, self-will and co-operation to achieve this through the Swachh Bharat Mission.”

Also Read: PM Modi Declares India Open Defecation Free, Says More Than 11 Crore Toilets Built

Though Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has played a vital role in improving the sanitation status of India, but India has been working towards sanitation since independence.

A Quick Look Back At India’s Sanitation History

In 1951, the first Five Year Plan was launched and since then, in some way or the other, health and sanitation found mention in almost every Five Year Plan, but unfortunately, the plans didn’t bear satisfying results. While some plans lacked budget, some didn’t have a definite goal and hence no separate funds were allocated for construction and repair of toilets, others had far-fetched goals without any plan of action. It is only in 1986 when a programme focussing exclusively on sanitation was introduced. Titled Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP), the first nationwide centrally sponsored programme aimed to provide safe sanitation in rural areas.

Since the programme didn’t address the question of why people defecate in the open, it failed. Later in 1999, Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) with a vision to eradicate open defecation by 2017 was launched followed by Nirmal Gram Puraskar, Sampoorna Swachata Andolana Scheme and others to strengthen the TSC, says Sushmita Sengupta, Programmet Manager at Centre for Science and Environment.

The decade of 2010-2019, especially the second half of the decade saw improvement in sanitation. Let’s break this decade into two parts – before and after the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and see what progress India has made and what more needs to be done to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 of clean water and sanitation to all by 2030.

Also Read: India’s First Nationwide Sanitation Programme In 1986 Focused On Improving Rural Sanitation

2010 – 2014: Status Of Sanitation In India Before Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

In 2006, TSC was converged with Indira Awas Yojna (IAY), a flagship scheme of the Ministry of Rural Development that addresses rural housing needs by giving grants for the construction of dwelling units for BPL (below poverty line) families. The convergence allowed the use of government funds for the construction of sanitary toilets in IAY houses, says Ms Gupta.

The TSC was started as a demand driven, community-led programme with major IEC (Information, Education and Communication) and capacity building programmes to make sanitation a felt need of the people. The TSC was supposed to be implemented with the help of panchayat.

According to CSE report authored by Ms Gupta,

Around 87 million toilets were constructed in 2001–12 under TSC and around Rs. 11,000 crore spent. It was found that the average allocation at the district level under TSC was around Rs. 30 crore. States such as Arunachal Pradesh showed the lowest allocation of Rs. 4 crore.

Elaborating on the reason behind the failure of TSC and the need to close the programme before its due date, an expert from India Sanitation Coalition at FICCI says,

Somehow, the programme was supply driven which means NGOs were given a target of constructing toilets. Therefore, toilets were constructed in great numbers, but the quality was poor and little to no attention was paid on behavior change. Hence, some of the households who started using toilets slipped back to defecating in open.

According to the CAG report number 28 of 2015 on performance audit of total sanitation campaign, due importance was not given to IEC and 25 per cent of the total IEC expenditure during 2009–10 to 2011–12 was incurred on activities unrelated to IEC.

Also Read: Total Sanitation Campaign Of 1999 Stressed On Community Participation And Rewarding ODF Villages

In 2012, the centre launched another sanitation programme – Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) with an aim to provide 100 per cent access to toilets in rural households by 2022. Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan was launched in convergence with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). NBA was an update to TSC with renewed strategies and modified guidelines and objectives to accelerate sanitation coverage in the rural areas.

Talking about how Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan shaped the sanitation in India, Jyoti Sharma, President of FORCE (Forum for Organised Resource Conservation and Enhancement) an NGO, says,

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan brought sanitation to foreground of public discourse. Through its community led total sanitation focus, it made it a mandate for government agencies to be responsive to people’s demands for sanitation. States and cities made sanitation policies and built community toilets, many states even came up with schemes to support people who wanted to construct an individual household toilet. NBA created the pathway through which government funds parked in schemes other than the NBA could also be leveraged for total sanitation.

According to the CAG’s audit of the programmes for the period 2009-10 to 2013-14, the planning was defective that is there was a lack of bottom-up approach. Gram Panchayat Plans were not linked with district plans. Along with this, the targets for construction of toilets were fixed by the state governments without taking into account the fund availability and their capacity to execute the approved plans. Also, weak monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, ineffective IEC activities and high incidence of defunct toilets made the TSC/ NBA ineffective in tackling the problem of rural sanitation.

Also Read: The Short-Lived Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan In 2012 Increased Toilet Building Subsidy Without Much Success

2014 – 2019: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government repackaged the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan into Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and introduced two sub-missions – Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) and Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). The stark difference between the two campaigns is, while the prime focus of the NBA was to improve the sanitation conditions in the rural regions of the country, SBM took urban under its ambit as well. Along with this, the subsidy provided by the government for the construction of Individual Household Latrine (IHHL) was increased from Rs. 10,000 under NBA to Rs. 12,000 under SBM.

The restructuring of the NBA was approved on September 24, 2014, and took effect from October 2, 2014. Under Swachh Bharat Mission, the goal was to achieve clean and ODF India by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatama Gandhi on October 2, 2019. At the start of the campaign, to make India ODF, the target was set to construct 67 lakh individual household toilets and 5 lakh community toilets in urban areas. Also, for rural India, where the sanitation coverage was mere 38.70 per cent, the aim was to bring it to 100 per cent.

Five years, down the line, the target of SBM has almost been achieved, according to the government, which claims rural India is ODF with construction of over 10 crore toilets and over 94 per cent of the urban local bodies are ODF.

Also Read: Swachh Guide: What Is ODF?

But the main question here is, what made SBM successful or how different was it from other sanitation programmes launched or for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to term the last five years as the golden age of sanitation in India in their report.

This was the first time when behavioral change was given a big focus, people were talking about it, communities were triggered and actually there was a connection between using a toilet and health and pride of the women. This is the reason we were able to achieve the target of building toilets, says Ms Gupta.

Since there was a large scale community involvement, and public awareness through IEC (Information, Education and Communication) activities, both the government and locals used various innovations for spreading the message of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Like, the Ministry of Urban Development launched Swachhta App to connect citizens with their respective urban local bodies to solve a host of deficiencies in the respective area.

Also Read: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: How The Mission Is Using Technology To Push Its Swachh Agenda

To put a full stop to the practice of open defecation in and around the city, Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) introduced ‘Roko aur Toko’campaign. As part of the initiative, the civic body formulated ‘dibba gang’, ‘mic gang’, and ‘whistle gang’ who worked in a same routine – shout and embarrass people defecating in open.

Before And After Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Has India Finally Managed To Provide Sanitation For All In This Decade
Indore’s ‘Dibba gang,’ mostly consisting of school children, start beating metal boxes loudly if they come across anyone defecating in the open

Also Read: Indore’s Swachh Mantra: ‘Roko Aur Toko’ Whenever You See People Defecating In Open

And people too responded to the campaign in a positive way, particularly women and children. For instance, in 2016, 106-year-old late Kunwar Bai from Chhattisgarh, sold off her only assests, 8-10 goats to construct a toilet at her home. What makes her story even more interesting is, for over 100 years of her life she had never seen a toilet but once she learnt about it, she was determined to get a toilet.

In Kabirdham district of Chhattisgarh over one lakh students wrote a letter to their parents demanding a toilet. Apart from people becoming aware enough to demand toilets many tried to come up with innovations to solve various aspects sanitation issues. Like, 50-year-old Arvind Dethe from Maharashtra’s Akola, a production engineer by profession innovated low-cost bio-toilet that helps treat human waste on its own without polluting the environment.

Before And After Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Has India Finally Managed To Provide Sanitation For All In This Decade
These bio-toilets can be assembled in 7 minutes and transferred to any part of India

Also Read: Arvind Dethe, The Man Who Developed Low-Cost Bio-Toilets To Help Make Parts Of India Open Defecation Free

Sanitation is now an industry with innovations, large corporate investments, established outsourcing protocols for municipal waste management within the government, performance benchmarks have been set and SMEs (small and mid-size enterprises) too have grown. This economic linkage will create sustainability in the sanitation space, says Jyoti Sharma.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) study of health gains from Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) conducted in 2018, the programme would result in averting more than 3 lakh deaths between 2014 and October 2019.

Also Read: Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) Would Result In Averting More Than 3 Lakh Deaths By October 2019, Says WHO

Unsafe sanitation caused an estimated 199 million cases of diarrhoea annually before the start of the SBM in 2014. These have been gradually reducing and will almost be eliminated when universal use of safe sanitation facilities is achieved by October 2019, Dr Richard P Johnston, technical officer for water, sanitation and hygiene at WHO had said while presenting the key findings of the study.

While different reports laud the government’s flagship programme, there are few areas which need attention. According to Ms Gupta, the first phase of SBM that is bringing in behavior change and making people construct and use is over. But now, the government needs to look at the second and crucial phase that is fecal sludge management and safe sanitation technology. As part of the SBM, the government promoted twin-pit toilet which is a complete on-site sanitation measure at household level but it is not suitable for all terrain and regions.

Before And After Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Has India Finally Managed To Provide Sanitation For All In This Decade
A twin pt toilet model for on-site management of fecal waste

Also Read: 5 Innovative Toilets That Can Change The Face Of Sanitation In India

As far as urban areas are concerned, here toilets are connected with septic tanks which need to be emptied from time to time and the collected waste has to be taken to a nearby sewage treatment plant for the purpose of treatment. This is called off site treatment of waste. But the issue is, our cities are not geared enough to carry the waste from the households to the sewage treatment plants. According to experts, the government needs to focus on that.

Discussing the same, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti said,

There will be many new households that will come up, with larger families splitting into smaller ones. The SBM is working to ensure that all eligible new households in rural areas gain access to toilets. There are a certain percentage of septic tanks even in rural areas, and especially in census towns. Fecal sludge management (FSM) is a key theme to deal with the fecal waste that ill emanate from these tanks once they are full. Additionally, fecal sludge treatment plants (FSTP) are being set up in rural areas wherever necessary by 2024.

Also Read: Tiny Blockage Between Life And Death: Sanitation Workers In India Face Grim Working Conditions, Reveals A New Report

India has just started its journey towards managing fecal waste, therefore, it will be too soon to comment on whether it’s on the right path or not or if the nation will be able to manage fecal waste effectively. Giving a final word of advice Jyoti Sharma says,

We have leaped ahead from where we were in 2014 but not reached the finish mark yet. We have to be careful of slipping back – certainly not to the 2014 levels though. We need to focus on fecal sludge management, municipal solid waste management, composting and strictly enforce the ban on single-use plastics.

Manual Scavenging: The Inhuman Practice Continues

WaterAid India’s Photo Exhibition Dives Into The Hidden World Of Sanitation Workers
Venkat Swamy clearing blockages inside the houses, using bare hands

When we talk about sanitation, one aspect is access to toilets whereas the other major thing is fecal waste management. As part of the SBM, the government is promoting construction of twin pit toilets, but neither are these toilets suitable for all regions and terrain nor can it be constructed in urban areas as twin pit requires more space. Therefore, wherever twin pit toilets cannot be constructed the solution is septic tanks and septic tanks involve manual scavenging.

According to a senior official from National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) which is the implementing agency for the scheme on rehabilitation of manual scavengers,

Most of the insanitary latrines have been converted into sanitary latrines under Swachh Bharat Mission implemented by the Ministries of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Housing and Urban Affairs.

Also Read: WaterAid India’s Photo Exhibition Dives Into The Hidden World Of Sanitation Workers

The official further said that till now a total of 54,130 manual scavengers have been identified across the country with maximum number in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

But Bezwada Wilson, one of the founders of Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) says that the actual number of manual scavengers is much higher than the figures provided by the government body. As per him, more than 2.6 lakh women are involved in dry latrine cleaning, around 7.7 lakh men are involved in cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Also Read: Heroes Of Swachh India: Fighting To Abolish The Dehumanising Practice Of Manual Scavenging, Bezwada Wilson Says ‘No One Should Clean Excreta By Hand Just For Roti’

How Far Is India From Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6?

The Sustainable Development Goal 6 of the United Nations states, ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. The target is to be achieved by 2030 that is 10 years from now. The SDG target 6.2 and 6.2.1 asks to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation.

In just five years, India has gone from being responsible for well over half of the world’s open defection burden to becoming the global leader in rural sanitation. This movement has had a tremendous impact on the global advancement towards SDG-6. In fact the global burden of open defecation has been reduced by more than half thanks to India, said the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, on India’s progress towards achieving ODF.

Apart from ODF, SDG 6 also involves a proportion of the population using safe sanitation services including handwashing with soap. While India might have improved toilet access for its citizens, sanitation and hygiene is still an area of concern. Elaborating on the same, Abhishek Sharma, Senior Manager – Research, Sambodhi Research and Communications, says,

The numbers definitely highlight the success of SBM in certain respects like establishing infrastructural facilities. What remains to be analysed is how this has impacted community and individual behavior. For example, if I have a toilet, how well am I maintaining it, how hygienic is the facility, does it have a sustainable provision for water and handwashing facilities, are all members of my household using it, and other things.

Also Read: Only 2 Out Of 10 Poor Households In India Use Soap, Survey

So SBM covers only a sub-set of targets specified under SDG 6. Several other aspects of SDG 6 like levels of water stress, safely managed drinking water services, wastewater management, water with good ambient water quality, and others do not fall within the scope of SBM.

Going forward, as part of the SBM, the government plans to shift the focus from construction of toilets to waste management. In her budget speech, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that now the government under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0 will focus on sustainable solid waste management in every village. She added that the government will not only sustain the behavioural change seen in people but also harness the latest technologies available to transform waste into energy and undertake sustainable solid waste management.

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