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No, Modi’s Swachh Bharat is not like earlier sanitation measures, it’s much better

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ThePrint’s article on Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign is condescending in title and content

ThePrint on 9 August published an opinion by Pritha Chatterjee titled In mad race for targets, Modi’s Swachh Bharat could fumble the same way UPA plans did. The condescending tone of the title is reflected throughout the article, and so is the author’s limited understanding of the tenets of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).

Also read: Pritha Chatterjee’s response- Swachh Bharat has made little difference, govt should factor in criticism

A consistent theme across the article is that SBM is no different from previous government sanitation programmes. The fact is that the mission is different in some very fundamental ways:

SBM is the first sanitation programme in the country’s history that has the personal leadership of the Prime Minister. Sanitation has been brought out of the closet and has taken centre-stage; in fact, it has now truly become a jan andolan.

SBM focuses on ensuring open defecation free communities, rather than just outputs of toilet construction.

The SBM also has a strong focus on verification of its ODF outcomes and on geo-tagging of all toilets built under the programme. There is a two-step verification process in place by the district and the state as outlined by the author as well. It also includes third party verification studies, such as by the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) under the World Bank support project quoted in the article.

Also read: In mad race for targets, Modi’s Swachh Bharat could fumble the same way UPA plans did

It is relevant for us to mention here, since the author fails to do so, that the NARSS study also confirmed the ODF status of over 95 per cent ODF-verified villages. These results, endorsed by the biggest global sanitation experts, bear testament to the fact that SBM has achieved what no other sanitation program in India has achieved in the past – real and sustainable behavioural change.

Besides the above, these are the inconsistencies, oversights and factual errors in the article:

The author says that SBM, like all previous sanitation programmes in India, is focusing on “just building toilets”. She also repeatedly refers to “experts” to back her claims, without ever elaborating on who these “experts” are.

She refers to the NSSO report of 2016 and the NARSS report of 2017-18 as studies that capture toilet use as an outcome. She then erroneously says “the recent NSSO report” said toilet usage stands at 94 per cent instead of “the recent NARSS report” (The NSSO estimated toilet usage at 95.6 per cent, the report has been hyperlinked by the author in the article).

She then says that this study does not capture individual behaviour. This is factually incorrect, as detailed household rosters were created under the NARSS and the usage behaviour of each individual in more than 90,000 households surveyed was captured separately.

The author also fails to mention that the NARSS had been overseen by an “Expert Working Group” comprising representatives from the World Bank, UNICEF, Water Aid, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, India Sanitation Coalition, Sulabh International, Knowledge Links, NITI Aayog, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation — the who’s who of sanitation and statistics.

The author says that the ODF declaration process under SBM is “largely an episodic approach rather than a process-driven one”. This could not be farther from the truth. From the author’s own description, ODF declaration is a democratic process with it being endorsed at a gram sabha meeting, followed by two sets of independent verifications at three and nine months from declaration.

Also read: Amitabh Bachchan may be a great actor but even he can’t get Indians into toilets for Modi

The NARSS, which the author has quoted in the article, is the annual verification by the Centre, contrary to the author’s claim of central verification being on paper.

The author calls India’s strategy for behaviour change “unimaginative”. It is this “unimaginative” strategy that has yielded stellar results under SBM-G, with over 40 crore people shunning the habit of open defecation in just the past four years. Both, the toilet technologies as well as the behaviour change strategies used in the programme are innovative and are constantly evolving as per the needs and context of the community.
This kind of a mass behaviour change is unprecedented in the history of the world. India now has an army of over 4.5 lakh Swachhagrahis, who spread the message of the health, economic, social and societal benefits of sanitation, including the issue of women’s safety, which the author surprisingly believes is not a trigger for behaviour change. This shows the stark disconnect that the author has with the ground realities.

The positive impacts of SBM-G have already started manifesting themselves, and have again been articulated by global experts, including Prof Valerie Curtis, Director of the Environmental Health Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The WHO recently released a study that showed that the SBM-G will have prevented over 3 lakh diarrhoeal deaths, and averted over 1.4 crore Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) by 2019. UNICEF, in a 2017 study, estimated that households in ODF villages in India are saving an average of Rs50,000 per year due to avoided health costs, lives saved and time saved. A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation study in 2017 found that there are significant reduction in incidences of diarrhea, stunting and wasting among children in ODF areas in India, compared to non-ODF ones.

This plethora of studies by the national and international agencies of impeccable repute showing the enormous success that the SBM has achieved, unequivocally establishes the stature of Swachh Bharat Mission as not only a unique sanitation programme in the history of India, but the most successful one to date.

Joshi is a director at the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.

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  1. Joshi Saab just get out of the comfort of your office and come see the real world. But not to criticize the SBM! It is indeed a Single Man Driven Project and only Modi could have made it so! But sadly at the grassroots there is no one steering it! Waste management and sewage disposal remain as bad if not worse! The white collar Officer at Block and Tehsil and District levels are actually just collating figures that reach them and not carrying out on ground monitoring and review which is required for such a mission. With the Prime Minister personally heading this mission I feel District Magistrates, Sub Divisional Magistrates and functionaries at the grassroot level should themselves be out checking for problems and resolving them in situ. But typical of their ilk they prefer the comfort of their tinted glassed Staff cars.

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