Swachh Bharat gains: Flaws and all, it has put total sanitation within reach

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Published: October 2, 2019 2:15:04 AM

Flaws and all, it has put total sanitation within reach.

Nearly 64% of the country’s rural population is already practising solid/liquid waste management (SLWM), also known as open-defecation-free (ODF) plus.

Gandhi Jayanti is now also the Rashtriya Swachhta Diwas. So, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is likely to be a landmark for the sanitation campaign, Swachh Bharat (SB). While there are reports that the government will declare India officially open-defecation free—the household toilet coverage, as per the SB Rural dashboard, now stands at 100%—a more objective stock-taking will be needed. Perhaps, more so, because two children were recently beaten to death in a Madhya Pradesh village for allegedly defecating in the open.

That aside, there can be no denying that the sanitation mission has resulted in unprecedented gains for the nation. Nearly 64% of the country’s rural population is already practising solid/liquid waste management (SLWM), also known as open-defecation-free (ODF) plus.

The Centre has stated that the next phase of the Swacch Bharat Mission will focus on waste management and access to tapped water. That will be a tall ask, given 75% of the households in the country—90% in the rural areas—don’t have tapped water on their premises.

Nearly 40 million Indians suffer from waterborne diseases annually, and 200,000 die, while 73 million working days are lost due to these diseases, leading to an economic loss of $600 million a year. A recent study by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) had pointed out, citing findings from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, that while toilet coverage has significantly expanded under Swachh Bharat, toilet usage still remains a concern.

However, even if the usage data isn’t a spot of cheer like the 100% coverage is, India is already starting to reap the dividends of the campaign. The Economic Survey 2018-19 shows how the sanitation campaign, among other factors, has helped bring down the incidence of diarrhoea, malaria, low birth weight and still-births in villages that saw drastic improvements in toilet coverage. The economic gains from improved health are significant—a Unicef study shows, on average, every household in an ODF area saves around `50,000 due to lower morbidity. The poorest households gain the most—financial savings, over a 10-year period exceed costs by 1.7 times on average, and 2.4 times for the poorest households under conditions of 100% IHHL coverage.

Given its immense potential for economic and social well-being, the Swachh Bharat campaign is the richest tribute that can be paid to Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. A focus on SLWM and tapped water access could influence usage as much as nudging behavioural change. With Swachh Bharat 2.0, total sanitation could well be within the country’s reach in the next few years.

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