Till three years ago,
millions of people across India, mostly the rural population and many in
urban regions, were nonchalant about performing their early morning
rituals, particularly relieving themselves anywhere out in the open.
They were unconcerned about hygiene, and diseases that could afflict
them. Parents were exposing their children to grave dangers.
All these have changed considerably for the better following Prime
Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a Swachh Bharat with universal
sanitation by October 2, 2019 (Mahatma Gandhi’s150th birth anniversary).
Down this period, open defecation, a way of life over centuries, has
Universal sanitation is at the core of India’s development agenda. Till
2014, only 39 percent people had access to safe sanitation facilities.
As the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) completes three years, five states,
nearly 200 districts and nearly 2.4 lakh villages across the country
have declared themselves open defecation free (ODF). Besides,1.5 lakh
villages have ranked themselves on the village Swachhta Index based on
solid and liquid waste management in villages.
Improved sanitation has resulted in major household savings. Every rupee
invested in improving sanitation leads to a saving of Rs 4.30, shows a
recent independent study by UNICEF to estimate the cost benefits of the
SBM. On an average, the cost-benefit ratio was 430 percent, “considering
on one hand the expenditure from households and the government, and on
the other hand the financial savings induced by improved sanitation,”
the study found. The benefits are the highest for the poorest quintile
of the population.
Besides, in fully ODF communities, an average family that invests in a
toilet saves around Rs 50,000 per year--considering medical costs and
mortality averted, and also time savings. The study, carried out in
10,000 rural households randomly selected across 12 states, found that
85 percent of family members use their latrines. The survey was
conducted to measure the economic impact of sanitation at a household
Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Water and Sanitation, says an
independent survey conducted across 140,000 households by the Quality
Council of India found that “household toilet usage stands at 91 per
Accessible and secure toilets have induced a big qualitative change in
villagers’ lives, especially women who were forced to defecate in the
open in darkness, suffering mental torture—with their safety, security
and dignity imperilled.
Want of access to proper sanitation prompts high health and economic
outlay: it costs India 6 percent of its GDP every year. Research has
highlighted an indisputable link between toilets, malnutrition and
irreversible stunting. For the populace continuously exposed to a
faecally-contaminated environment, absence of a toilet can have
far-reaching effects. Insanitation affects children leading to 100,000
deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases. Nearly 40 percent of India’s children
are physically and cognitively stunted, according to the World Bank.
A major challenge facing the government is to bring about behavioural
change in people’s mindsets, especially among rural masses—totally
different from building a toilet, an infrastructure programme, that can
be accomplished. It is focusing on this most important factor, which
requires dealing with a centuries-old deep-rooted habit of people going
out (to defecate) and then getting them to talk about it. Several
interpersonal techniques through community approaches to sanitation are
being used across the country to trigger behavioural change; fundamental
to the SBM.
“Beyond the hundreds of thousands of toilets being built, "a genuine
prioritisation of behaviour change interventions is taking place,” says
Nicolas Osbert, Chief of WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene), UNICEF
To strengthen and take the mission forward, the Centre, under an
accelerated fortnight-long campaign “Swachhta hi Seva” (cleanliness is
service), is executing a series of activities--such as cleaning toilets,
bus stands, movie halls, railways stations, public halls and more. The
campaign will culminate with Swachh Bharat Diwas on October 2.
Efforts are on to move beyond the current drive for open defecation-free
cities and work towards faecal sludge management for a safe urban
environment without any risk to land and rivers. Every day, India
generates a colossal 1.7 million tonnes of faecal waste. About 78
percent of this sludge (human excreta and water mixture) remains
untreated and is dumped into rivers, groundwater or lakes in the absence
of proper treatment systems. Sludge contains disease-carrying bacteria
and pathogens and poses threat to health.
Youths and other stakeholders are being encouraged to come up with
innovative solutions to problems for sustainable, environmental-friendly
and affordable toilet technology for hilly, dry, flood-prone and remote
areas; novel technological solutions to monitor usage of toilets and
bring behavioural change for toilet usage and hygiene;
They have been invited to suggest unconventional models and methods to
improve operation and maintenance of school toilets; pioneering
solutions for menstrual health management and innovative solutions for
early decomposition of faecal matter.
Unlike earlier open-ended programmes, the mission has been put on a fast
track to accomplish the sunset clause--an ODF India by constructing 12
million toilets. Realising that this is a difficult and time-consuming
venture involving behaviour change, sanitation has been made everyone’s
business—be it the pradhan or the collector or the Member of Parliament.
It is being operated through the Prime Minister, chief ministers,
district magistrates, VMs (village mukhiyas). Also, an army of
swachhagrahis has been created and nukkad nataks (street plays) have
Behavioural change is being motivated through mass media and
interpersonal messages communicated by celebrities, who are creating
awareness about the ill-effects of open defecation.
The author is an independent journalist and columnist, with four decades
of experience across media streams--print, online, radio and television.
He writes on science and developmental issues.
Views expressed in the article are author’s personal.