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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Five years on

A latrine in the mountains of Ladakh.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – the NDA government’s flagship sanitation scheme – reached its five-year anniversary yesterday, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Indian independence figurehead Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 

“An ideal village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation,” the Mahatma once reflected. “The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. I, therefore, believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature and clean articles for use at the time.” 

To honour his legacy, the NDA government has been moving to rid India of open defecation and effect broad improvements in the cleanliness of the nation. The fifth anniversary of the initiative’s launch offers opportunity for reflection on its successes – and the challenges that remain. 

The scorecard for the scheme is generally mixed. What has been acknowledged is that the number of toilets constructed in India has expanded significantly. Since October 2nd, 2014, government figures claim that 

  • 100,753,274 household toilets have been built
  • 699 of India’s 731 districts are open-defecation free, covering 599,963 open-defecation free villages
  • 35 states and union territories are open-defecation free

The initiative has been widely acclaimed by international observers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was conferred the Global Goalkeeper Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his role in promoting the scheme. Nicolas Osbert, chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene at UNICEF India, has praised the initiative, opining “five years of time, considering the size and diversity of the nation, the success of Swachh Bharat Mission is a world record.” Bill Gates himself has lauded the scheme. 

Copyright: lembi / 123RF Stock Photo
Headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, U.S.. The foundation awarded Prime Minister Modi the Global Goalkeeper Award for his efforts to promote sanitation in India. 

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director for South-east Asia at the World Health Organization (WHO), affirmed that the “WHO lauds India’s commitment to accelerated coverage of safe sanitation services”. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised Modi for his leadership on the issue, writing that “accelerated coverage of safe sanitation…is essential to achieve [health for all].” 

Yet there are gaps in the initiative and problems associated with its rollout. Dean Spears, founding executive director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, writes in Down to Earth that “eliminating open defecation so quickly was always an implausible goal.” Spears does acknowledge that, in states hard-hit by open defecation such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, the “decline in open defecation did accelerate” under Swachh Bharat between 2014 and 2018. “Rural latrine ownership increased meaningfully over this period, and more local officials than before now understand the twin-pit latrine model.” 

However, Spears goes on to note how coercion has played a role – targeting in particular Adivasi and Dalit households. “Withholding or threatening to withhold government benefits” are among the tactics used, he notes. Commentators have pointed to the failure of the scheme to address the complexities of casteism, identifying this as a major impairment of the scheme in its ability to make a positive and inclusive social impact. 

Copyright: ggfoto / 123RF Stock Photo
A latrine located in rural Andhra Pradesh.

In the instance of caste-based coercion, sometimes such tactics can have tragic outcomes. This was shown in the alleged murder of two Dalit children caught defecating in the open – prompting the Union Jal Shakti Ministry (responsible for water resources and sanitation) to disavow the use of coercive measures as part of the campaign. The Ministry went on to assert that “inappropriate actions and extreme coercive actions ought to be [prosecuted]…to the fullest extent of the applicable law.” 

“Positive behaviour change for adoption of safe sanitation practices as well as ensuring that no one is left behind, are key to achieve the goal of the Swachh Bharat Mission,” the Ministry adds. As such, “states must avoid any coercive measures for ensuring construction and usage of toilets.” 

Spears also suggests another issue: behavioural change has not been effected in states hard-hit by open defecation, writing that “the fraction of latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change over these four years.” Indeed, reports that in “several Northern states…nearly one in four – or 23 percent [of] – people in households with latrines continue to defecate in the open.” This contributes to a trend wherein “reduction in open defecation did not match the increase in new latrine coverage….more than seventy of the population in the villages that received the programme continued to defecate in the open. Of those households that had improved sanitation facilities, 41 percent still defecated in the open, daily.” 

A waste treatment plant outlet. Fewer than forty percent of faecal waste in India is properly treated. Image credit: SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0 (]
As well as the need to effect positive behaviour change, there is also the need for broader improvements to India’s sanitation system. The Print reports that “the fatal flaw was the Swachh Bharat Mission’s disproportionate focus on constructing toilets instead of improving the overall sanitation in the country…ministers and bureaucrats have been shouting out figures on the number of toilets built and distributed, instead of informing people about the extent to which sanitation has improved.” Citing research by Spears and Diane Coffey, The Print notes that “people prefer open defecation to basic latrines because the latter needs to be emptied out manually or pumped out by simple machines.”

This is borne out by past research. As reported by Health Issues India in 2017, one piece of research suggested that almost sixty percent of toilets built under Swachh Bharat up to that point lacked a proper water supply. Writing in NewsClick, Subodh Varma claims that “the government…has singularly failed to provide any data on how many of the new toilets have water connectivity of any kind. Given the sorry state of piped water availability it will not at all be surprising if it turns out that in many, if not most of these toilets, there is no running water available.” This point, Varma adds, echoes complaints of past initiatives aimed at building toilets failing to address water supply before the Modi government came to power. “Yet, nothing has been learnt.” 

A Dalit man working as a manual scavenger. Image credit: Dalit Network ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
The human waste generated in India tends not to be properly treated, with only forty percent of faecal waste properly treated. Often, waste ends up in septic tanks: in some states, as many as eighty percent of toilets are connected to septic tanks. Consequently, in many instances, the onus for cleaning up in India falls on the shoulders of sanitation workers who clean septic tanks, bucket latrines, and sewers by hand – an illegal practice known as manual scavenging which employs 770,000 in hazardous and deadly conditions. Estimates put the death toll due to manual scavenging as high as 1,800 in the past decade alone. 

To be clear, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has achieved results. It is credited by many observers, including the WHO, with reducing the death toll due to acute diarrhoeal disease. Almost Rs 4,000 crore has been spent on education and awareness-raising. And it has undoubtedly expanded access to toilets. There is success to be built on from the scheme – and, accordingly, an abundance of places where it can go. 

Protection for manual scavengers, efforts to address the impediments posed by casteism, and achieving broader improvements to the sanitation system and water supply of India are among the necessary steps the scheme needs to take going forward. The Centre certainly has an accomplishment in the form of Swachh Bharat – but it also has lessons to learn from the first five years and improvements to make in the future.

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