Govt must work on water supply, safe fecal waste disposal
While the Union government claims the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) success is a resounding success—in terms of improving sanitation coverage, or the number of households with toilet ownership, it definitely is—more needs to be done to realise its vision. Recently, in his speech in Parliament while presenting the Interim Budget 2019, finance minister Piyush Goyal claimed that the NDA-2 government at the Centre “initiated the world’s largest behavioural change movement with the Swachh Bharat Mission. … (SBM) has succeeded in changing the mindset of our people.” However, a recent study by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (R.I.C.E.) finds, even though toilet coverage is significantly up, it is still far from being universal—the SBM portal suggests 98.6% of Indian households have access to toilets—and nearly 44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rajasthan still defecate in the open. As per the official SBM database MP, UP and Rajasthan have achieved 100% sanitation coverage of rural households, i.e., households with toilets. But the R.I.C.E. study found that, while rural sanitation coverage has drastically improved in these four states—it is up from 37% in 2015-16 (NFHS data) to 71%—it is still some distance away from universal coverage. The jump in sanitation coverage is certainly attributable to SBM—while 57% of the rural households without a toilet in 2014 had one by 2018, 42% of these got it with government support. But, in effecting behavioural change, SBM has still a long way to go.
To be sure, improving household sanitation coverage is an important goal for a country like India, where ODF levels are the highest across the world, and to that end, SBM has more than just plugged the implementation gaps left by the precursor scheme, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. But, a focus on just toilet-building reflects a rather blinkered approach. While the R.I.C.E. survey finds that open defecation levels have come down in all four states, around 23% of rural households that owned a latrine in these states still defecated in the open—the number remains unchanged from 2014; worse, the number of toilet-owning households defecating in the open has increased in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. So, clearly, curbing open defecation needs more than just mere access to toilets. There are many factors why SBM, despite improving sanitation coverage, hasn’t managed to spur toilet usage. However, the most important factor, many experts point out, is that SBM doesn’t take an integrated sanitation route, one that includes access to water supply to villages, running water in toilets and waste management. The last is indeed an acute need, given the R.I.C.E. study found that, of the toilets constructed with government-support in the four states, nearly 60% weren’t twin-pit latrines—this model, of having two pits for fecal sludge to allow for greater decomposition of the waste and pathogen reduction, is recommended by the government. Given the massive positive returns for health and productivity SBM can have—simply by reducing contamination of water, it can bring down childhood malnourishment levels, infectious disease burden, lost man-hours due to disease—the government must make water supply and safe fecal matter disposal the prime features of SBM 2.0. Else, the SBM vision will remain stunted.