More than just toilets needed

| | in Oped
More than just toilets needed

India cannot fulfill its dream of becoming open defecation free by 2019 only by building more toilets. Emphasis must also be on bringing about behaviour change. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has to become a people’s movement

The ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan recently celebrated its anniversary on October 2. This unprecedented cleanliness movement has October 2, 2019, as the target date to achieve a completely clean India. But according to a latest report by WaterAid, an NGO, around 732 million people, which includes 355 million women and girls, still do not have access to a toilet in the country.

In fact, if this section of the population were to stand in a line, the queue could circle the Earth more than four times. This basically translates to the fact that these infrastructure-challenged people are still resorting to open defecation as a part of their daily routine.

These conditions have put India at a very low rank on the global sanitation index. Currently, India figures at the sixth position among the top 10 nations working to eliminate open defecation. This, despite best efforts being put in on account of the ongoing Swachh Bharat mission.

Surprising as it may sound, but the Swachh Bharat mission has surely changed India’s sanitation landscape. Since its launch, the mission has enabled the building of 52 million household toilets, leading to an impressive increase in India’s sanitation coverage from 39 to 65 per cent.

According to the WaterAid report, post Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the percentage of population without access to at least basic sanitation fell from 78.3 per cent in 2000 to 56 per cent in 2015. Open defecation, however, has been reduced by just 40 per cent.

A robust sanitation infrastructure is the centre of NDA Governments drive to ensure a clean India, and this is surely not only for cosmetic purposes. Each year, 60,700 children under five years die from diarrhoeal diseases, making this disease the second leading cause of death in Indian children under five years, killing an estimated 321 children every day in 2015.

The main cause for the spread of this disease is open defecation. India cannot progress if its population keeps falling prey to avoidable diseases that arise on account of lack of hygiene and the present Government has the resolve to stop the same, but the run up towards the objective and target date of mission completion seems short. Simultaneously, other related problems might prove to be the Achilles Heel for the programme and that’s where lies the problem.

The Government set aside Rs9,000 crore for rural sanitation in the 2016-17 Union Budget, but this has been accompanied by declining funds for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme. This will in turn affect the eradication of open defecation and, therefore, directly impacting the achievement of the mission objectives by 2019. It is also crucial for the Government to understand that simply constructing toilets will not eradicate open defecation. Spending on toilet construction has steadily grown but spending on expenditure for behaviour change campaign activities is much less.

In October, it constituted just 0.8 per cent of the spending on construction of toilets. The Government will have to think of effective ways to engage with the people on personal level so as to coax and convince them to use these facilities in order to bring down open defecation and disease.

What ails any ambitious project or policy announced in India is the telling gap between the announcement and execution. The NDA Government seems to have successfully dispelled any such apprehensions regarding the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but given the time in hand to achieve the mission objectives, the Government will still have to pull out the proverbial rabbit out of the hat in order to accomplish the set targets of the mission.

Identification of the gaps in the progress of the mission are not being identified quickly enough and much less is the speed to rectify the challenges that are cropping up. This can create a drag on the otherwise swift momentum of the mission.

The Government must realise that a high pace of awareness generation though multiple means is the only method of getting the message to the intended audience. The youth of the country are still to be roped into the Abhiyan on a large-scale and that is unfathomable as the impact of the young generation, given their passion, is considerable.

Additionally, social entrepreneurs too are not forming a part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This means that the mission loses out on the experience and contribution of an entire section of the society. As it is rightly said, a policy is only as effective as the people willing to follow it — it is the critical need of the hour to ensure that the Swachhta policy has the weight of the people behind it in the form of their participation, till such time Bharat is still long way from being Swachh.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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