For a country where two thirds of the population defecated in the open as per the 2011 Census, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s plan to make the country open defecation free (ODF) in five years always seemed a mirage. And sure enough, the data at the end of the scheme’s two years suggests a yawning gap between the targets and what has been achieved. Just a little over half the target number of villages that were to become ODF in two years have actually become—in terms of the number of districts, just 24 of the 100 targeted have become ODF. While there has been good progress in states like Kerala, Mizoram, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, it has to be kept in mind, these were among India’s better-off states when it came to not defecating in the open anyway. And there is also the issue of the fact that claims on ODF haven’t actually been verified by third-party audits such as by the CAG. Large amount of unspent funds in some of the worst states like Jharkhand also point to the scheme’s inability to scale up as planned.
That, though, is one way of looking at things. There can be little doubt the scheme has triggered a public awareness and has brought issues like hygiene and cleanliness to the forefront of the national discourse as never before. The fact that the toilet coverage in rural India has gone up from 42% at the beginning of the scheme to 55% now, and the number of ODF villages increasing from 50,413 in FY16 to 87,666 now is certainly a positive. As a result of 17 new districts becoming ODF in the current financial year, the total is up to 24. Similarly, in the urban areas also, as against the target of making 739 cities ODF in FY17, at least 141 have gained this distinction so far. If the scheme’s targets have to be achieved in populous states like Bihar and Odisha—where the rural toilet coverage is still 25% and 34%, respectively—or in other large states like Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where it is still below 50%, there is little doubt the state governments will have to be a lot more active. Certainly, the Centre needs to keep pushing them—with perhaps better monitoring—but the actual work on the ground has to be done by them.