How clean is the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’?

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The Swachh Bharat Mission was launched amidst great pomp and fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 2nd October, 2014. Its aim is two-fold: one, to achieve full sanitation by 2nd October, 2019 in a span of 5 years; and two, to achieve the Gandhian dream of a clean India. Achievement of sanitation and clean water facilities is also mandated by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 adopted by the United Nations Member States, including India.

What are the salient features/aims of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

The following are the salient features of the Abhiyan:

  • Make India Open Defecation Free (ODF): India has one of the highest rates of open defecation in the world due to its largely rural population with no proper toilet facilities. Despite the launch of a Sanitation Programme in the 1980s itself, open defecation has been a huge problem and Swachh Bharat seeks to combat this.
  • Eradication of Manual Scavenging : The evil of the caste system continues to prevail in India through the practice of manual scavenging which is prohibited by law.
  • Impact behavioural changes regarding sanitation: The mission aims to influence and change the mindset of people so as to promote consciousness among them about both self and community hygiene and other related aspects.
  • Public-Private Partnership: Another aim of the mission is to rope in private agencies in myriad fields to help achieve complete sanitation coverage by 2nd October, 2019.
  • Municipal Waste Disposal : The mission aims to encourage the people to segregate waste properly and ensure proper mechanism for its safe disposal.
  • Strengthen Urban Local Bodies (ULBs): The mission also aims to strengthen the efforts of the ULBs to deal with waste disposal, sanitation, upkeep of infrastructure etc.
  • Toilet Conversion: Majority of the rural population in India uses insanitary toilets that are dilapidated and unscientific, leading to serious health and sanitation problems. Conversion to flush based toilets will help mitigate these problems.

How can Swachh Bharat Abhiyan promise a life with dignity to people?

Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees to every person the right to life and personal liberty. The Supreme Court, through a plethora of judicial decisions, has expanded the ambit of Article 21 so as to include a host of rights within it, the most important being the right to live with dignity.

One of the very first cases in which right to dignity was upheld as a part of Article 21 is Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration wherein the Court observed that right to dignity is guaranteed by the Preamble of the Constitution itself. In Francis Coralie Mullin v. Administrator UT of Delhi, a landmark case on right to dignity, the Supreme Courtheld that right to life under Article 21 is not a life of mere animal existence but a life that constitutes an expression of the human self.

The Supreme Court in Bandua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India asserted that the importance of right to live with dignity is also founded upon Article 39(a), Article 39 (e) and Article 41 of the Constitution. In the recent landmark cases of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors. and Common Cause v. Union of India, the Supreme Court reiterated that human dignity is an important part of the Constitution and right to dignity falls within the ambit of Article 21.

Despite a rich jurisprudence on the right to live with dignity, people of India are constantly denied this right. Sanitation and hygiene are important for a person to lead a dignified life and this is what the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seeks to achieve.

Has Swachh Bharat Abhiyan helped to improve the sanitation coverage in India?

It is heartening to note that about 98 million toilets have been constructed in a mere span of 4 years and the rural sanitation percentage is at an all-time high of 98%.

According to the data from the Open Government Data Platform (OGD), approximately Rs. 7000 crore has been allocated as Central Outlay and Rs. 3500 crore as State Outlay for urban water supply, treatment and sewerage.  However, there is no mention about the funds allocated for the same in rural areas.

Also, a total of 1053 number of projects were  sanctioned for urban water supply, sewerage, drainage and solid waste management under the two major component of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), namely, Urban Infrastructure & Governance (UIG) and Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small & Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) The level of investment for this is Rs.58, 915 crore.

Is everything rosy about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

The World Health Organization (WHO), in a 2018 press release, lauded India for the success of the Swachh Bharat Mission by asserting that at the present rate, the reduction in open defecation and the provision of better sanitation facilities will prevent diarrheal deaths and add almost 14 million years of healthy life.

In a major show of appreciation, it has been recently announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be honoured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the prestigious ‘Global Goalkeeper Award” for his substantive efforts to reform the health and hygiene situation in India.

Despite such progress and global recognition, obstacles remain.

Firstly, the process of declaring a village as ODF is fraught with many loopholes. Many villages only barely manage to achieve the seven aims of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan mentioned earlier and thereby exist as ODF only on paper. Concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the data submitted by State Governments regarding declaration of villages as open defecation free.

Topping the list of these concerns is the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has achieved 94% sanitation coverage in a very short period, thereby raising doubts that the State Government is masking fake data. Even a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development recommended that State Governments re-examine the areas already declared as ODF.

Secondly, the issue of solid waste management still persists. Thirdly, mere construction of toilets does not really ensure sanitation. Multiple reports by various NGOs have raised concerns over the over-construction of non-functioning toilets which are either connected by faulty pipes or are not dug properly. The treatment of human excreta is also another cause for concern as the release of untreated human excreta into nature gives rise to a host of diseases. This negates the very objective that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seeks to achieve.

The way forward…

The Bloomberg Health Index 2019 ranked India at 120 out of 169 countries in the world. India is ranked lower even than some sub-Saharan neighbours and fellow members of BRICS.  According to the WHO recommendations on ‘spending targets for health’, to achieve universal healthcare, a country must spend 4-5% of its GDP on healthcare and allied services.

India allocates barely 2% of its GDP to healthcare. This meager allocation itself shows the apathy of the government towards the improvement of healthcare in the country. Universal healthcare can only be achieved by starting at the ground level and this includes the provision of clean water and sanitation facilities to all.

The author would like to make the following suggestions to improve the sanitation situation in India:

  • Establishment of a Monitory Body in each district to oversee the construction of toilets.
  • Establishment of partnerships with renowned NGOs like Sulabh International to provide quality construction of toilets.
  • Spreading awareness upon the importance of sanitation and disposal of waste in both urban and rural areas.
  • Emphasis on the use of bio-toilets and eco-friendly toilets.
  • Reliance on international models and standards.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Kaushik Chandrasekaran from School of Law, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru.