How far have we reached on Swachh Bharat Mission?

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Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2, 2014, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is a nation-wide sanitation mission by the government of India which aimed to achieve a “Swachh India” within five years. A task which has previously been taken up in vain under different nomenclatures, the USP this time lay in the success of the SBM being intended as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birthday. The primary aim of this movement is to eradicate open defecation, establish a system of door to door waste collection, and construct toilets for every household as well as for public use by 2019. Considering the vast difference in the sanitation requirements between cities and villages, the initiative has been divided into separate streams for urban and rural areas, called SBM (Urban) and SBM (Gramin) respectively. The former is under the aegis of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs while the latter is handled by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.

The guidelines released of the rural initiative lay down its broad objectives as follows: (i) total elimination of open defecation in villages across the country; (ii) acceleration of sanitation coverage, particularly in villages; (iii) involving and incentivising the community and local governmental bodies like Village Panchayats to actively contribute to the SBM; (iv) increasing awareness about sanitation and health education so as to create a need for personal and household sanitation facilities; (v) improving the quality of life in rural areas by promoting the concepts of hygiene and cleanliness. Since there is a dearth of individual household toilets and sanitation facilities in villages in particular, the main aim is to construct individual sanitary latrines for households below poverty line and encourage the construction of low-cost sanitary latrines for all households as well as for public use. An effective and calculated move of the government has been to incentivise the SBM in rural areas. To this end, it has provided for cash rewards for the construction of individual latrines. Further, a system has been established under the SBM to obtain loans from the government for setting up Rural Sanitary Marts and to receive funding for constructing Community Sanitary Complexes and setting-up Solid and Liquid Waste Management projects.

As per government statistics, sanitation coverage for rural areas was at 42.01% at the time of the launch of the SBM in October, 2014. As compared, this has increased by over 15% in the next couple of years and stood at 58.75% at the end of 2016. Moreover, 1.3 lakh villages have been declared open defecation free as of today.

Considering the need for individual household toilets is not as pressing in urban areas as it is in rural areas, the mission objectives for the urban stream of the SBM slightly differ, and primarily include (i) total elimination of open defecation in urban India; (ii) eradication of manual scavenging; (iii) constructing public toilets; (iv) establishing scientific urban solid Waste Management projects; (v) increase private sector participation in implementing sanitation facilities; and (vi) increasing awareness about healthy sanitation practices so as to achieve a change in attitudes and a consequent positive change in toilet and sanitary behaviour as well. Government statistics boast of having constructed over 30 lack of individual toilets and almost 1.5 lakh public toilets across Indian cities since the inception of the mission, while around 1000 cities have been declared open defecation free in this period.

A significant component of the SBM is the solid waste management arm of the mission, which encompasses the utilisation of solid waste for the purpose of producing compost as well as electrical energy. This has only been introduced in the cities at this stage. This is a multi-step process involving segregation and storage of waste at the source itself, for which purpose colour-coded dustbins have been put in public spaces while households are being encouraged to segregate their waste as well. This segregated waste is collected in the primary collection phase, mainly through garbage trucks, and taken to the secondary storage. At this stage, a secondary segregation is done before the waste is finally transported for processing and treatment. As per government data, almost 1.65 lakh metric tonnes of compost was produced in 2016, with current waste to energy production levels being at 88.4 megawatts. However, progress has been slow, and even big cities like Delhi continue to be littered with towering landfills of garbage.

The Swachh Bharat Mission is slowly becoming an intrinsic part of various corporation’s corporate social responsibilities as well, with their sharing the task of constructing toilets in schools situated in their areas of operation. This has been named the “Swachh Vidyala Programme”. Public undertakings such as Coal India Limited, National Hydro-electrical Power Corporation, Rural Electrification Corporation Limited, and several others have been given targets of the number of toilets to be constructed in such schools. However, as per the review conducted after the first year of the programme, public sector undertakings had only completed construction of 18,520 toilets, which is equivalent to 11% of their target. The private corporate sector, on the other hand, performed even more poorly and only met 8% of its committed target, with construction completed of 424 toilets. In this period, the government had met 45% of its target by constructing a total of 1,22,140 toilets. At the time of this review, it was revealed that eight companies including Infosys, TCS, Mahindra Group, ITC etc. had only commenced work on 25% of their targets, and were yet to commence work for the construction of around 3000 toilets.

As per the timeline and the targets decided, construction of only one out of every three toilets has been completed in just so far. Another major hurdle being faced with the implementation of the SBM is related to the availability of water. This is a chicken-and-egg kind of a problem, with acute shortage of water continuing to be a major issue in rural and urban areas. Rising levels of water pollution severely affect the availability of water, and public toilets in metropolitan cities have been reported to have no water supply at all. This leads one to question whether building toilets serves any utility in the absence of water supply. It is comparable to the gap between the current age of “digitising India” and the low education levels in the country, with several sections of the population not being able to keep up. However, the usefulness of the SBM in a country like ours cannot be denied, and it is hoped that corruption and bureaucratic control do not hinder the successful completion of this initiative, which has been the fate of so many others.