On World Toilet Day, United Nations figures on open defecation and toilets across the world should ring alarm bells. Four billion people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities. Each day, nearly a thousand children are dying due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases. What’s the situation in India?
“Four years since Swachh Bharat’s launch, what difference has it made to India’s sanitation indicators?”
When the BJP came to power in 2014, it was partly on the promise of cleaning up India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (‘Clean India Mission’) began life with much grandiosity. Four years since Swachh Bharat’s launch, what difference has it made to India’s sanitation indicators?
Swachh Bharat was launched with the goal of eliminating the widespread practise of open defecation within five years of its launch. It aimed to do this by constructing toilets to expand sanitation coverage. Since the scheme was launched, 4.75 lakh
(475,000) communal and public toilet seats, 61 lakh (6.1 million) household toilets have been built and by October 2019 the country aims to be declared open defecation free, according to official figures.
The Centre further claims that sanitation coverage has expanded to 92 percent in rural areas. This is compared to 34 percent coverage when the scheme began. As many as 25 states are now open defecation free (ODF), Prime Minister Modi said at the beginning of October.
The progress made under Swachh Bharat recently won the initiative praise from the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO credited the initiative with increasing household sanitation coverage for Indians by thirteen percent each year between 2016 and 2018.
However, to what extent do the above facts and figures tell the full story about Swachh Bharat’s impact?
“Far from being universally lauded, Swachh Bharat has been the focus of much criticism”
Far from being universally lauded, Swachh Bharat has been the focus of much criticism. A stinging report by WaterAid last year claimed that, despite Swachh Bharat’s efforts, 732 million Indians still lacked access to toilets.
The report was vociferously challenged by the Centre, calling it “a total departure from reality” because it used outdated data. The Centre had some credence in levelling these criticisms, as pointed out by the Times of India. Nonetheless, the controversy still brought to light issues such as the fact that almost sixty percent of toilets built under Swachh Bharat lacked a proper water supply, rendering them unusable. Forty percent are not connected to a proper drainage system.
This highlights another issue with Swachh Bharat – improper treatment of human waste.
“In some states, as many as eighty percent of toilets are connected to septic tanks”
A mere forty percent of faecal waste in India is properly treated. The remainder finds its way into the septic tank, which can lead to pollution of water supplies and gas emissions that are toxic to the surrounding environment. In some states, as many as eighty percent of toilets are connected to septic tanks.
One noticeable group not to have benefited from Swachh Bharat are sanitation workers. They are forced to deal with the task of emptying the country’s thirteen million bucket latrines and, in many instances, cleaning the country’s sewers by hand.
This practise – manual scavenging – is illegal in India, but is still widely practiced. It poses many hazards for workers, many of whom often descend into the sewers alone, without protective equipment such as ventilators, gas masks, hard hats, and gloves. This leaves them vulnerable to breathing toxic gases such as carbon dioxide and methane and risking infection from the septic environment. Their plight lends a vital insight into the human cost of failing to boost sanitation coverage across India.
“Limited availability of toilets has been a problem plaguing India for years”
Poor sanitation is one of India’s most pressing public health challenges. When named the worst country in the world for its citizens’ environmental health earlier this year, India scored a dismal 145th place in a list of 180 countries on sanitation. Limited availability of toilets has been a problem plaguing India for years, affecting those in rural and urban areas alike.
Progress has been made under Swachh Bharat in the four years since its launch. Whether it has been enough is a different matter.
From improper treatment of waste to poorly functioning toilets to the continued reliance on manual scavengers to clean the country where government programmes are not measuring up to the task, it is clear that sanitation is an area where India still has much room for improvement.