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Opinion | Swachh Bharat Mission -- an apolitical move with rich political dividends in long run

The drive for a Clean India has turned the focus on sanitation like never before. Can one deny Modi or his government credit if the mission finally changes quality of life for millions of people?

October 01, 2018 / 04:46 PM IST
Besides these moves, the Modi government has also come up with various other schemes including Make in India, Swachh Bharat, Aatmanirbhar Bharat, Startup India, etc.

Besides these moves, the Modi government has also come up with various other schemes including Make in India, Swachh Bharat, Aatmanirbhar Bharat, Startup India, etc.

Shekhar Iyer

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Swachh Bharat Mission from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his first Independence Day address in 2014, many could not help wondering why a subject of a municipal nature was raised by the PM -- and that too on a historic occasion!

No PM had previously raised the question of cleanliness and sanitation at a national level.

Modi gave the slogan of 'Na gandagi karenge, na karne denge' (neither will we litter, nor will we let others litter). He also simultaneously sought to address the health problems that more than 60 percent of Indian families have to deal with due to lack of proper toilets in their homes and safe drinking water.

Subsequently, the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched throughout the length and breadth of the country as a national movement. It aimed to achieve the vision of a 'Clean India' by October 2, 2019, with a goal of making the country 100 percent open defecation-free with proper solid waste management.

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Today, four years later, official figures show that the 503 of India's 699 districts, 3,622 of the 4,041 urban local bodies and 487,445 villages have been declared open defecation-free. More importantly, women no longer suffer the indignity of having to go out into the open to defecate.

At the time of initiative's launch, fewer than 40 percent of households in India had toilets at home. Today, that figure is close to 85 percent.

Citizens today are active participants in cleanliness activities across the nation. Appeals from Bollywood stars, sport icons, industrialists, spiritual leaders and harbingers of change have evoked a positive energy among many people. Every day one hears of cleanliness initiatives by government departments, NGOs, local community centres, and students.

There are a good number of stories of people getting together to build their first toilet to serve their homes and communities. In many places, it is no longer a government-led initiative but a "government-wide" one aimed at involving the communities.

Of course, on the flip side, there are stories of villages claiming to be open defecation-free merely on paper. There have also been instances of politicians 'cleaning' roads and pavements for the cameras. Any hype cannot be sustained if there is no change whatsoever and no beneficiaries to recount the change.

True, Modi's ambitious campaign for an open defecation-free country may appear still a far cry from the reality in vast parts of urban and semi-urban India. However, it is important to remember that Modi's pet scheme is one that was not born out of effecting a political one-upmanship. Driven by his desire to usher in behavioural change among Indians, Modi can only find political dividend if Clean India turns out to a huge success in the long run.

An all-India sanitation revolution can be a great measure of good governance.

We are one of the dirtiest nations in the world. We battle a mindset that pushes all the dirt out of the home and into public spaces, so much so that even the hardest of Modi critics have not dismissed his act of picking up a broom on October 2, 2014 — and every year since then — as a mere a photo-op.

The challenge of building a toilet for every household aims to bring sustainable solutions that save water, power and lives and end water-borne and waste-induced diseases. As experts say, the building of 85 million new toilets and 21 states declaring themselves open defecation-free is just one part of that challenge. The other is to build an efficient and durable sanitation infrastructure for community-level disposal of waste.

Modi has been candid to concede that "only constructing toilets won't make India clean. There have to be facilities in the toilets, facilities for garbage collection and disposal. Cleanliness is a habit which must be included in everyday experiences. This is the way towards a behavioural change."

Param Iyer, a former IAS officer and World Bank employee, who was picked by Modi to head the mission, believes that of the people who have had access to toilets so far, 92 percent were found to use them regularly, correlating to the findings of a separate survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office. Almost 70 percent of the villages surveyed have also had minimum litter or stagnant water.

Be that as it may, there is little doubt that in a number of villages, cities and towns, the focus has turned on sanitation.

There is an apolitical character to this awakening for cleanliness and hygiene. On October 2, the government will flag off celebrations to mark Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary with Prime Minister Narendra Modi hard-selling the success story of the Swachh Bharat Mission as a global model.

Can one deny Modi or his government credit if the mission finally changes quality of life for millions of people?

(Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. The views expressed are personal)
Moneycontrol Contributor
first published: Oct 1, 2018 04:46 pm

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