By Gandhi Jayanti in 2019, the NDA government at the Centre has set for itself the target of a clean and healthy India. But a ‘swachh and swasth Bharat’, in the words of Prime Minister rendra Modi, will require most of 130 crore Indians a mountain to climb. So much so, that the PM is now talking of a ‘Swachhagraha’ to free the country of filthy habits and lack of hygiene, on the lines of the tiol movement Mahatma Gandhi had launched to free India. There is a reason for his sense of urgency on the second anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) he had kickstarted on October 2 in 2014. Recent surveys have revealed that the country is yet to make appreciable headway on the cleanliness front. The worst-performing states still remain Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand, as per a study by data jourlism website IndiaSpend. Since these states account for 37 percent of India’s population, the mission has to succeed in this bloc if it is to make an overall impact. Back in 1999, these five states has been clubbed in the same lowest bracket under the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), launched by the then NDA government in its first innings under Atal Behari Vajpayee. According to another survey by citizen engagement platform LocalCircles, only four states Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra have shown the most improvement in hygiene; there was no change in Delhi, UP, Punjab and Bihar, while other states including Assam showed only margil improvement. Let alone clean habits percolating to individual households, this survey found even municipal bodies ‘still not fully engaged’ with citizens or the cleanliness mission. More than half the respondents surveyed believed civic sense hadn’t improved at all in the last two years.
While NSSO data-based reports brought out by the Central government this year have focused upon increased toilet use, experts are fretting whether the Modi government is repeating mistakes made in the TSC and the UPA’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Spending far more than 90 percent mission funds on toilet construction with a target-based approach again ignores the need for bringing about behavioral change in people, they warn. If awareness about the need for hygiene — particularly in terms of public health needs — has to be built up among the people, how is it that expenditure in the IEC (Information-Education-Communication) component dropped from barely 4 percent in 2014-2015 to just 1 percent in 2015-2016, experts have questioned. Without proper awareness, it is feared that most rural Indians will not adopt the habit of regularly cleaning out latrine pits, which they mostly leave for scavengers to do by hand. This in turn leads to the question of caste inequality, for manual scavenging has been the lot of dalits who are now firmly in the country’s focus. Dalit activists are angrily asking why their people as ‘untouchables’ still have to clean out the filth of others, when atrocities on them keep brazenly increasing. While our urban planners have never come around to developing sewerage systems in the cities, the average village household cannot afford septic tanks. So cleaning standalone toilets of the type now being promoted by the government is a problem that requires much more thought from everyone involved. Without an adequate awareness drive, how will the necessary thinking come about, particularly the search for technological solutions? So if about half the Indian households still defecate in the open, things cannot change until the underlying attitude changes. The Modi government deserves all credit for taking up something long considered a lost cause. But for a country likely to grow to 1.7 billion people by 2060, waste disposal is no longer a challenge that can be put off any longer. If Indians are not to choke in their own filth, they must understand and take to heart why the Father of the tion had once said: “Sanitation is more important than political independence.”