With more than 66 million household toilets built in rural areas since 2014, there can be little doubt the progress of toilet building under Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBMG) has been impressive. As a result of this, according to the government, the number of people defecating in the open has dropped by 300 million. Nor is this just the government saying this. The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2017-18, conducted by an independent organisation with funding from the World Bank, seems to corroborate these numbers. According to NARSS, 93% of surveyed households that had access to a toilet were using it. Given only 58% of rural households that had access to toilets were using them as recently as 2015, this should mean the government has covered significant ground in its efforts to improve sanitation in the country. The number of rural households with access to toilets has also seen a phenomenal jump, from 38% before the Swachh Bharat roll-out to nearly 80% today. As a result, NARSS found that over 95% of the villages that have been declared open-defecation-free (ODF) were actually ODF. Given the relationship between clean drinking water and proper sanitation infrastructure, this is good news.
Down to Earth (DTE) magazine, however, points to several inconsistencies in the data, using the government data itself. It points out, for instance, that it would be highly unusual that a village that does not have enough toilets would have adequate solid-waste or liquid-waste disposal systems—yet, the data says 67% of non-ODF village have access to safe solid-waste disposal and 69% have adequate liquid-waste disposal infrastructure. A large state like Rajasthan, which is supposed to be 100% ODF, is still struggling to manage safe disposal of liquid waste. The DTE report also says that “delving deep into survey data” shows that most households surveyed in Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal reported not having formal arrangements to dispose waste. In such a scenario, these states having more than 80% household toilet coverage will not make much difference if the waste is not disposed safely.
It is also important to keep in mind that, even if the NARSS report is correct, the fact that close to a third of the non-ODF villages lack safe disposal of waste means contamination remains a significant threat. Also, while sanitation and safe drinking water must go hand in hand, resources for the former are rising, while those for the latter are falling. Allocations for sanitation have risen from `2,850 crore in FY15 to `19,248 crore in FY18, but funding for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, which aims at giving 90% of the rural households piped drinking water connections, has fallen from `10,500 crore in FY13 to `7,050 crore in FY17. Slippages in drinking water coverage will undermine the gains from SBM.