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Editorial Articles

Issue no 30, 21 - 27 October 2023

Ensuring Cleanliness and Beyond

A Decade of Sanitation Progress in India




During India's struggle for freedom, Mahatma Gandhi famously asserted, "Sanitation is more important than independence," recognising that the journey to a brighter future for our nation must begin with the cleanliness of our surroundings and the well-being of our people.

After gaining independence in 1947, India embarked on an extraordinary journey, channeling its energies toward building a prosperous future. Yet, among the myriad challenges on this path to progress, one loomed large the challenge of sanitation. Despite striving for economic growth and social development, the challenge of open defecation and inadequate sanitation facilities cast a shadow over the nation's health and dignity.

In response to this critical issue, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi initiated the Swachh Bharat Mission, a visionary campaign that transcended political boundaries and became a beacon of hope for a cleaner, healthier India. Over the past decade, the response to this mission has evolved, bringing about remarkable change. The once pervasive issue of open defecation, which afflicted the country as recently as 2014, has been significantly mitigated. With an emphasis on behavioral change, the construction of millions of toilets, and extensive public participation, the entire nation celebrated the historic achievement of becoming open defecation free by 2019.

In an exclusive interview to Employment News, Ms. Vini Mahajan, Secretary, Department of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India, spoke on the transformative journey of sanitation in India and the ongoing mission to secure a cleaner, healthier future for the nation. Shri S. Rangabhasiam, Freelancer Journalist interviewed her on behalf of Employment News. Excerpts from the interview.

Q: How has the response to the Swachh Bharat Mission evolved over the past decade, considering that it has been more than nine years since its inception?

A: Cleanliness encompasses multiple dimensions, and a crucial aspect is open defecation, which persisted in India as recently as 2014. On a global scale, open defecation has been recognised as a significant issue within the domain of sanitation. One of the world's Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure universally safe drinking water and sanitation, with a particular emphasis on fecal sludge management.

A decade ago, it was estimated that India accounted for approximately 60 percent of open defecation cases worldwide. Sanitation is intrinsically linked to both health and economic well-being. For women, it transcends mere convenience, becoming a matter of dignity and security. This context prompted the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to issue a clarion call to action, urging the nation to embrace 'Swachhata' or cleanliness.

One of the primary challenges addressed in this call to action was the eradication of open defecation in the country. However, this was a formidable challenge, as less than 40 percent of rural households had access to toilets, necessitating a substantial shift in behavior. The initiative resulted in the construction of over 10 crore toilets across India and, more importantly, encouraged people to utilise these facilities. By 2019, the entire country had achieved the milestone of becoming open defecation-free. This stands as a remarkable achievement over a very short span of time, one that the entire nation can take pride in.

Q: This year's Swachhata Hi Seva campaign focused on the theme "Garbage-Free India." What are the aspirations of this initiative?

A: The primary concern for people is the presence of large heaps of garbage. Consequently, this year, our focus is on moving India towards becoming garbage-free. Citizen engagement is pivotal in achieving this goal. People need to understand the importance of waste segregation at the source and the concept of converting waste into wealth. These are practical and achievable objectives.

Q: Can you provide an explanation of the concept of 'Jan Andolan' and 'Shramdaan' in the Swachhata Hi Seva initiative?

A: The Swachhata Hi Seva initiative stems from the Prime Minister's vision of cleanliness, where he emphasised that cleanliness should not be solely a government-driven effort but rather a 'Jan Andolan' - a people's movement. People's participation is pivotal to achieving our cleanliness objectives. Swachhata Hi Seva serves as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. Several ministries and departments set aside two weeks as 'Swachhata Pakhwara' at any time during the year. However, the primary program that involves widespread public participation occurs in the second half of September, known as 'Swachhata Pakhwara.'

During this period, significant efforts are made in both urban and rural areas to encourage people to participate in 'Shramdaan,' which involves activities like cleaning public spaces, water bodies, beachfronts, and more. Additionally, various mass mobilisation activities, such as rallies and pledges, are organised to raise awareness about the importance of cleanliness. All of these efforts are voluntary, aiming to inspire and encourage people to actively engage in this endeavor.

Q: What has been the response to the Swachhata Hi Seva special focus fortnight?

A: The Pakhwara witnessed significant outcomes. This year, it culminated in an exceptional one-hour effort on October 1st, where the Prime Minister called upon every citizen to voluntarily dedicate an hour to engage in cleaning activities in a public space from 10 to 11 am. All states and union territories participated wholeheartedly, ensuring that each activity was documented on a dedicated portal to maintain public records. During this fortnight ending on October 2nd, there were over 100 crore participations, averaging over 6 crore participants daily in Swachhata-related activities, with roughly half engaged in actual cleaning and the other half focused on awareness creation.

Q: Considering the economic significance of tourism, is there a specific program in place to ensure the cleanliness of tourist destinations?

A: For several years, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation has closely collaborated with the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Culture to identify and maintain tourist places of high footfall, referred to as Swachh Iconic places. Partnerships have been established with central public sector organisations under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. A substantial initiative was launched on World Tourism Day, September 27th, to promote safe sanitation at tourist destinations. We are currently developing guidelines for hotels and resorts, particularly in hilly regions and other parts of the country, with a focus on assessing solid and liquid waste management.

Q: The nationwide Open Defecation Free (ODF) initiative was initiated just a decade ago. What factors do you believe contributed to the lack of prioritsation of this issue throughout the previous decades?

A: Several factors contributed to the historical lack of prioritisation. In earlier periods, when population density was lower, the problem of open defecation may not have been perceived as acutely as it is in contemporary times. Economic constraints may have also compelled individuals and communities to allocate it a lower priority. Additionally, cultural, socio-economic, and educational conditions played pivotal roles in impeding the awareness and action that we witness today. The substantial impetus provided by the Prime Minister in recent times is undoubtedly a significant catalyst for the rapid progress we have made in such a short timeframe.

Q: Regarding the open defecation front, how effective has the ODF campaign been in instigating the necessary behavioral change?

A: Between 2014 and 2019, a massive effort was undertaken, resulting in every village, town, and city in the country declaring themselves open defecation-free. However, this achievement must be sustained, considering factors like new households and migrations. It's imperative to ensure that every household, including new ones, has and uses toilets, and that behavioral change persists. This is an ongoing endeavor, and while we are proud of our achievements, we consistently engage with states, urging vigilance to prevent any relapse. Continuous vigilance is necessary.

Q: What is the ODF and ODF-plus model?

A: A village is declared ODF when every house, school, Anganwadi, etc., has toilets in use, and open defecation is eliminated. The subsequent step involves complete sanitation, known as the ODF-plus journey. This phase includes the proper segregation and disposal of both solid and liquid waste. Organic waste is composted, and plastics are recycled. This ultimately creates a model ODF-plus village.

Q: Are there additional welfare measures for Safaimitras (sanitation workers)?

A: The government places the highest priority on the health and welfare of sanitation workers, Safaimitras. In urban areas, when sewers become blocked, sewer workers sometimes need to enter sewers physically, which poses significant risks, including reported deaths in the past. Extensive efforts are being made to ensure that sewers are adequately maintained, reducing the need for human entry. When entry is necessary for repair or maintenance, workers should be properly trained and equipped with safety gear to protect them from occupational hazards.

Q: All these initiatives require long-term sustainability. How do you plan to ensure the sustainability of these programs, particularly from a financial perspective?

A: Certainly, there is a need for capital expenditure, including funding for vehicles and Resource Recovery Centers (RRCs). The 15th Finance Commission has allocated 60 percent of funds to rural local bodies for water and sanitation. Over the last 3-4 years, nearly Rs 1,00,000 crore have been disbursed to states and union territories for sanitation-related activities. To ensure sustainability, we aim to involve women Self Help Groups as an essential stakeholder in the sanitation process. In addition to government funding, user charges can be a viable avenue for sustaining these initiatives.


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Views expressed are personal.