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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: The need of the hour


Cutting across party lines and socio-economic identities, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the ‘Clean India Mission’ has had a massive civic impact on people on a pan-India scale. Apart from direct issues like cleanliness, sanitation and environment, it also covers a wide ambit of causes, such as socio-economic development or well-being, social justice, economic growth, health and community rights. First visualized by the PM in his Independence Day speech when talking about the issue of open defecation and linking it to a violation of women’s rights, the Clean India Mission struck a similar chord when it was launched on October 2nd and vowed to make India clean by 2019. Launched by the PM from the Valmiki Colony in New Delhi, its inception was marked by an overarching message of equal inclusion on one hand and hopes of uniting people in civic nationalism on the other hand.

This is an important message, as the issues of open defecation, waste mismanagement and lack of public hygiene and sanitation have crept in like cancer in our system and become a foundation for national shame. Not only has this dissuaded both foreign tourists and Non Resident Indians from visiting India and investing in opportunities here, but has also become a source of discomfort for India at various international forums, despite all its progress in various fields. The lack of cleanliness in India is one of the major stumbling blocks to our international policy and, in turn, to the economic growth prospects that may be utilized with international outreach. This is particularly crucial at a time when the PM is trying to attract foreign tourists to India through various incentives, like the Visa-on-arrival facility for the US nationals, who are the most extravagant globe-trotters, visiting India.

A comparison with past initiatives: Best practices and failures

Prior to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there have been related government policies which have been instituted over the years, but have largely been ineffective. The financing for these schemes has been massive, as, since 1986, more than Rupees 18,000 crore have been spent on sanitation policies. However, the abysmal performance of the previous governments’ Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, resonated with the general failure of the issues of cleanliness and sanitation in public policy priorities, which tended to focus on grand and electorally-exploitable issues. Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan failed mainly because of improper policy implementation and plan; its financing was linked to the MNREGA programme which was itself ineffective. This failure was further compounded by a lack of awareness and mobilization which kept the public alienated from these concerns.

The present Clean India Mission may mark a clean break from these past programmes for the following reasons:

First, unlike the past programmes which were treated merely as an obligatory government policy, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been launched both as a policy and a campaign. Thus, it encourages active involvement of the people which can, in turn, make the government officials more accountable.

Second, a major drawback of previous programmes was that they were confined to a decentralized approach enclosed within communities and were, thus, characterized by problems of supply and meeting completion targets and compounded by the huge scope of corruption that such a confined approach entailed. This impaired their utilization and coverage. However, the present Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will likely avoid these pitfalls if the spirit of nation-wide concern fuelling local-level accountability and direct intervention, from time-to-time, by the central administration is maintained.

However, there have also been examples of successful implementation and lessons from these best practices can be taken for this mission. A case in this regard was the Nandigram II block (West Bengal) which, in 1990s, became the first block to provide all rural households with toilets. The case was a community-led programme which encouraged social cooperation among people to ensure attitudinal change and also effective political coordination between the block and district levels and reasonable technical assistance. Apart from this, various other community-led programmes, conceived through a campaign mode, in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sikkim, were also successful.

Thus, to sum up, important features of successful programmes include:

• A practical roadmap for implementation.

• Strong and exemplary political leadership at all the three levels – centre, state and local.

• Mobilizing people and encouraging change and cooperation among them through various ways, including by spreading the programme through the campaign mode rather than the policy mode. This will also help to create demand for sanitation services.

• Optimal financing of the programme.

The need of the hour is to ensure a sound roadmap through which the Swachh Bharat campaign can be made successful and sustainable.

From symbols to reality: Ensuring implementation:

The government has succeeded considerably in mobilizing people for the Clean India cause, both by seeking to raise awareness among people through various campaigns and educational initiatives and by setting symbolic examples by roping in various popular personalities. The Ministry of Culture has directed its institutes of art and culture to come up with innovative ideas on mobilizing people for this cause, and the government has also directed hospitality institutes to include this issue in their course curriculums. The government has also roped in religious leaders to generate awareness.

However, the public spirit is often transitional and prone to relapse. Already there were reports of heaps of waste beginning to appear just two days after the cleaning drive was launched on October 2nd.

Therefore, what is needed is a clear roadmap of this mission which can be sustained effectively. We need to recognize that the solutions to the problem of waste are not limited to having public spaces which appear to be clean and enhance our national prestige, but need to improve our quality of health and minimize the impact of environmental degradation.

An important factor which will help in the implementation of the Clean India Mission is that it is not confined to a single or a group of ministries. Almost all government departments are trying to contribute to it in their own ways. While some Ministries such as those related to sanitation, health, social justice and rural and urban development would be directly involved with the implementation report of the mission, other government ministries/departments too are identifying with this mission. The Culture Ministry has directed the Archaeological Survey of India to clean up all its sites and arrange for proper toilet facilities.

The government has laid out clear guidelines for assessing the implementation of this programme. It will bring out a Swachhta Status Report every year from 2016 onwards after carrying out extensive surveys, in order to assess the progress made on the ground. Apart from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the other key ministries who would be consulted in developing this implementation assessment plan include Ministries of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Health, Social Justice, Rural Development, and Urban Development.

However, beyond laying down the structure for assessing implementation, how the actual implementation process will proceed is not very clear, as there are a variety of debated views in the fray. The critical point to note is that the availability of physical infrastructure alone will not ensure its utilization or the effectiveness of the programme. The issues involved in cleanliness, sanitation, environment and psychological well-being are highly interconnected and neglect of any one issue will have spill-overs in all other areas as well. Moreover, the government will be spending a massive amount of money on this programme – Rupees 2 lakh crore over the next five years –, thereby, making it important that it succeeds.

In this regard, it is important to take note of the following:

First, the issue of sanitation needs to be looked at holistically, rather than simply a matter of constructing toilets to prevent open defecation. Studies have shown that despite Kerala’s high sanitation coverage, diseases continue to prevail, since there are insufficient treatment mechanisms when pits fill up.

Second, apart from addressing the provision of physical infrastructure, it has to be ensured that this infrastructure is utilized and does not remain dysfunctional.

Third, it is important to note that the problem of waste cannot be addressed without the reduction of the source of waste. The production of e-waste and the use of plastic should especially be discouraged and strict laws must be put in place to ensure that both manufacturers and consumers comply with them. Internationally too, India must negotiate contracts to prevent the dumping of e-waste and chemical waste in its territory. Instead, biodegradable waste which can be used for composting or as a fuel through incineration, is much more manageable in solving the problem of waste. Mechanisms to ensure management of biodegradable waste should not be allowed to remain lax, however, as it produces methane which is the most dangerous greenhouse gas.

Fourth, to cement the relations between higher and local-level authorities, the disbursement of funds should be regulated. Regular inspection of implementation should be conducted from time-to-time and if, upon monitoring, gaps are found, then grants to the local level authorities should be strictly withheld.

Fifth, it should be recognized that stray animals are one of the biggest hurdles to public cleanliness. The issue of stray animals is also a politically sensitive issue, with several large animal activism organizations involved. It would be extremely costly and unproductive to clean up every time a stray animal relieves itself in a public space. Instead, it is much less costly to take care of this problem once-and-for-all, by creating a separate sanctuary for stray animals where they could be fed as well as taken care of. This also takes care of the political opposition coming from organizations like PETA.

Finally, it must be recognized that forms of pollution which cannot be seen but exercise a strong impact on us, also need to be tackled.

This is particularly true of noise and air pollution. Psychological well-being and mental balance forms an important aim of cleanliness. Noise pollution, through its disruption, and air pollution, through the diseases it causes, impairs this aim. Strict implementation of laws is required to ensure that people and organizations do not perpetuate noise pollution, and these laws should be applied to all, including religious organizations.

Air pollution in waste management needs to be dealt with by substitution of inorganic waste and proper management of biodegradable waste.

These aims are just the tip of the iceberg. Without them and in the absence of a host of cooperative social and administrative mechanisms, the dream of Swachh Bharat will simply remain a rhetoric and will lose strength over time. However, if this plan is successfully implemented, it will develop the civic and national consciousness tremendously and will also go a long way in strengthening India’s global role.

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