An article in last month’s Caravan magazine covers the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission and provides sharp insight into some of the problems the program faces in rapidly reducing open defecation. Sagar, the author of the article, visited three places close to Modi – Ahmedabad, Varanasi, and villages that have been adopted by Modi under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana – places that if anything would present a rosier picture than the average. But, he says, “Most of what I saw, heard and read was not encouraging.”
An important issue that remains unaddressed by the Swachh Bharat Mission is pit emptying. In rural areas, the government promotes the use of latrines that can be emptied manually, after the fecal sludge decomposes. However, what is almost entirely ignored is that because of the persistence of beliefs in untouchability, manually emptying a latrine pit is considered by many caste Indians to be something that only a Dalit should do. By disregarding this belief and failing to try to change it, the Swachh Bharat Mission risks perpetuating manual scavenging, a practice which is now illegal. Sagar succinctly sums it up:
“The Swachh Bharat Mission raises questions for which the government does not appear to have adequate answers. Manual scavenging exists in the yawning gap between the amount of excreta produced by India’s enormous population and the country’s existing capacity for processing it sanitarily. If that gap is not closed, especially as the government strives to get more than half a billion people who did not previously use latrines to start using them, it will perpetuate the same old practices.”
Sagar also pointed out the necessity of an independent evaluation to measure progress. He says:
“As it is designed, this campaign, like the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, is meant to have its progress regularly verified through independent evaluation. As I discovered, these measures are not functioning as they should. The government’s behavior suggests a disturbing resistance to transparency and accountability—a possibility reinforced by the rejection of many of my RTI requests on thin procedural grounds. As my reporting proceeded, I became increasingly convinced that the government’s data and claims on the Swachh Bharat Mission should be met with scepticism until they are checked by credible non-government agencies, and until their findings are released for public scrutiny.”
This is an important and shrewd appraisal of the Swachh Bharat Mission, a must read for anyone wanting to understand its progress.