When the NDA government pushed the Swachh Bharat campaign in 2014, few could fault Prime Minister rendra Modi’s intention. The central message he strove to drive home in that year’s I-Day address was that cleaning up one’s environs is an act anyone can do and feel empowered thereby. A citizen can curse the government for not doing something in his locality; or he can at least clean up his home, neighborhood or place of work and feel good about it. Once that ‘can do’ spirit is unleashed, it can be put to use in other areas too. Seen from this perspective, the cleanliness drive is an excuse, albeit a very laudable one — to break the shackles of inertia and do one’s bit to improve things, however little it might seem. And in Assam, it would have been relatively easy to get the cleanliness drive going in a big way. The State, after all, has an age-old socio-cultural background enjoining persol habits of cleanliness and hygiene. But the previous government here chose to score political points over the campaign; it loudly reminded all and sundry that the Modi government is merely re-packaging the Congress-led UPA’s Nirmal Bharat drive as Swachh Bharat. In this raucous Swachh vs Nirmal din, the central message of giving up filthy habits and taking pride in cleanliness was inevitably drowned out. Even in the days of the UPA regime, the Congress government in Assam hardly accomplished anything noteworthy on the cleanliness front. And now the State is paying the price. The whole picture can be gauged from one critical component of this drive — the construction of low-cost sanitary latrines. It transpires from official records that in the five fincial years from 2011-12 to 2016-17, the State government could overall mage only a poor 36 percent of the target. Only 15.5 lakh of the total 42.8 lakh latrine construction target materialized in these five fiscals combined.
This is just part of the story. It turns out that even in those low-cost latrines that the Public Health Engineering department did get around to constructing, there was large scale leakage. Works which should have been assigned to NGOs were handed over to favored contractors. In turn, many such contractors furnished inflated bills of materials procured, most of which were of inferior quality. Needless to say, commissions were paid out at various levels of the powers-be; the politician-babu nexus ensured that even under the head of latrines for the poor, a large part of the funds earmarked were cleaned out. The BJP-led government in the State will now have to go all out to make the PM’s pet drive a success. It will have its task cut out to reduce the backlog — in just the last 2016-17 fiscal, less than 60 thousand of the targeted 8.5 lakh low cost latrines could be built. The Central government is presently through its second review of its cleanliness drive. The broad picture indicates that a little over half (51.8 percent) of the country’s total households now have latrines, compared to 38.8 percent in December, 2013. In terms of urban sanitation, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are the top five performers; by March next year, urban areas in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala are likely to be free of open defecation. This is the target set for the whole country by Gandhi Jayanti in 2019, which would be very difficult to reach unless it becomes some sort of people’s movement. The challenge is greater in rural areas, where barely 55 thousand of over 6 lakh villages have achieved open defecation free status till now. A state like Assam can aspire to be a good performer, if only the State government now seriously applies its mind to the cleanliness drive. Building toilets in towns and villages, after all, is just part of the solution. There are bigger challenges looming ahead on the cleanliness front, like devising effective waste disposal systems and tackling environmental pollution.