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Chaitanya Kalbag

The author is former Editor, Reuters Asia, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindustan Times, and Editor of Business Today

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Toilet-training India

Swachh Bharat reaches a milestone, but the road stretches on .

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On September 25, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the Gates Foundation’s Global Goalkeepers Award in New York for his leadership of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), two Dalit children, Avinash and Roshni, were beaten to death in a Madhya Pradesh village for defecating in the open. 

Two days later the Jal Shakti ministry’s Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) issued a rather stilted advisory to the chief secretaries of all states saying “certain forms of inappropriate actions, extreme coercive actions” like the children’s deaths were “totally unacceptable” and would be prosecuted by authorities.

One day earlier, three men died after inhaling poisonous gases in a septic tank in Assam’s Barpeta district – the first when he entered the tank to clean it of human waste, the other two when they tried to rescue him.  

These deaths bracket the realities that accompany the sweeping changes in social behaviour that the Clean India drive has pushed over the past five years, aided by, as Amitabh Bachchan says in a sonorous video prefacing Modi’s award acceptance speech, “the right communication, at the right places, through known, trusted channels”.

The truth is that the Valmiki children who died in Shivpuri last week could not use the toilet built in their grandfather’s home because it was flooded by the rains.

There is no doubt that Swachh Bharat has been very successful in its messaging and branding because Modi has been its chief marketer. It also has a dedicated team running it.  On a whiteboard behind his desk, Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary of the DDWS and lynchpin of the SBM, daily clocks the number of days left until his retirement next April. Modi lured the ex-IAS officer back from a World Bank job in 2016. 

On October 2, Modi will dedicate a Swachh Bharat to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary at a huge event on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, watched by 20,000 swachhagrahis from Gujarat and across India. A few days earlier a book on SBM was released by, among others, actor Akshay Kumar, whose Toilet: Ek Prem Katha in 2017 added a Bollywood punch to the story.  Previous governments had run a succession of schemes to build toilets, but under Modi, it achieved jet propulsion.  SBM will celebrate the construction of over 100 million toilets across 599,963 villages in 699 open defecation free (ODF) districts.

Sceptics say the numbers are exaggerated, and a paper published in April, Coercion, Construction and ‘ODF paper pe’  says open defecation in rural India has not disappeared but only come down to 45 per cent at end-2018 from 70 per cent in 2014.

Iyer says such reports take a “glass half empty” approach and have too small a sample size. He also cites multiple independent studies, including two iterations of the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey, on SBM’s health and economic benefits.  Among these: at least 300,000 deaths avoided; 14 million DALYs (disability adjusted life years) due to diarrhoea and protein-energy malnutrition; Rs 50,000 saving per ODF family annually in averted medical costs, time saved and more productivity; as well as reductions in stunting and encephalitis; and sharply reduced soil and groundwater contamination. 

SBM has been shepherded by the swachhagrahis and neighbourhood watch-and-ward nigrani samitis which patrol ODF villages to encourage (some would say enforce) clean behaviour.

Where does the truth lie? The 2011 Census counted 2.3 million unsanitary or dry pit latrines. Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, counts 2.6 million.  Despite legislation outlawing manual scavenging and the construction of dry latrines, like the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling ordering states to stamp out the practice, Wilson says there are 160,000 people who still clean out human excreta with their hands. Separately, he says another 770,000 workers are regularly sent into sewers and septic tanks without protective gear or oxygen, exposing them to lethal fumes.

Why just two weeks ago the Supreme Court again blasted the government for its negligence. “In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die. Every month four to five persons are losing their lives in manual scavenging,” a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said.

I wrote about some of the horrors of manual scavenging five years ago, soon after Modi spoke about toilets in his first Independence Day speech. Then Modi launched the SBM on Gandhi Jayanti 2014. 

With its dashboard looking good, Swachh Bharat is moving to sustainability with ODF Plus – solid and liquid waste management. Here, too, the challenges are formidable. ‘Black’ or toilet wastewater is a problem chiefly in our cities. Drainage is a problem, and fewer than 30% of them have sewer networks, so most human waste goes into septic tanks that need to be emptied. Typically such waste is dumped into water bodies, so we need effective fecal sludge management; this could involve trucking fecal waste to smaller treatment plants that need to be set up. Shockingly, a country of India’s size has only about 1,000 sewage treatment plants. 

The Jal Shakti ministry is increasingly focused on Modi’s Jal Jeevan Mission – piped water in every rural dwelling in five years, from 18% now. Conservation will use ‘grey’ wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms, which can be used for irrigation and recharging groundwater once oils and detergents have been removed. Down the road, rainwater harvesting will be made mandatory across water-scarce India.

Both the start and finish of SBM have an American context. “About 19,000 Indian-Americans yelled ‘Yes we can!’ when Modi asked if they would like to help him clean up India, although it was not clear how they would get their hands dirty,” I wrote after Modi’s Madison Square Garden rally in New York in 2014. I still don’t know the answer. This year, after bonding with 59,000 Indian-Americans in Houston, Modi punctuated every speech with Swachh Bharat before flying home to an uproarious welcome from adoring crowds, always on message.