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Modi's Clean India Needs More Actions than Photo-ops

February 4, 2015

CREDIT: Adam Jason Moore (CC).

As economist Joan Robinson once put it, "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true." India is a country of many paradoxes and sharp contradictions. While it takes pride in its recent economic and scientific developments and ancient civilization, it is also a place where access to clean toilets is still a distant dream for millions of people, and where extensive littering and open defecation are common.

Last year, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a historic victory, with a promise that Achche Din (good days) are coming. In his campaign, he spoke passionately about economic development, jobs, better public infrastructure, and clean governance, citing success stories from countries like South Korea and Japan. In addition, he did not forget about the country's hygiene problems. While addressing a large group of young people in New Delhi, he declared the need to "build toilets first and temples later." On October 2, 2014, coinciding with Mahatma Ghandhi's birthday, and a few months after being elected, Modi launched a "war" on dirty streets. For years, the government had been accused of apathy about lack of hygiene in public spaces. The campaign, known as Swachh Bharat—Clean India—promised to make India trash-free by 2019. At the launch of this ambitious program, the prime minister himself wielded a broom and cleaned the roads.

Following the example of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral, Modi nominated nine prominent public personalities—including Bollywood stars—who in turn would nominate nine more, all contributing to propagate the campaign. India's TRP (target rating point)-hungry TV channels gave maximum coverage to actors, cricketers, celebrities, and corporate leaders cleaning roads, and removing debris and garbage heaps from the streets. Over 3 million government employees and college students participated in the nation's biggest ever cleanliness drive intended to bring behavioral change in people regarding healthy sanitation practices.

Though Swachh Bharat has evoked unprecedented media coverage and created public awareness on the need to keep surroundings clean, a lot more needs to be done to realize the Clean India goal by 2019, as Modi aspires to do. The government must address numerous challenges and ground-level realities if it is serious about achieving its mission.

The data about sanitation facilities in India paints an extremely grim picture. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF joint monitoring program report for water supply and sanitation, half of India's 1.2 billion people have no toilet at home. Census data from 2011 on household amenities reveals that only 46.9 percent of the 246.6 million households have lavatories, while 49.8 percent still defecate in the open. According to the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), the economic impact of inadequate sanitation is about Rs. 2.4 trillion ($38.4 million), or 6.4 percent of India's gross domestic product.

While on paper the government appears to spend millions of rupees on building toilets, lack of civic awareness on the need for toilets at home is rendering this large-scale government expenditure futile. The Modi government's promise to allocate Rs. 20 lakh (approximately $32,000) to each of 650,000 villages to build millions of toilets under the Clean India campaign is a welcome move. However, it is important to recollect that the previous government's Nirmal Bharat—Total Sanitation—campaign targeted sanitation for all by 2022, providing Rs. 10,000 ($160) to each family to build toilets. In some cases, the toilets went unused, specially in rural areas, and in others the money was misused and allocated for other purposes.

Another major challenge is the lack of clean public toilets in urban areas. In mega-cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, for example, there are very few public toilets. Even the few that do exist are so badly maintained that one has no option but to either use the toilet before leaving home or relieve oneself in the open. Men urinating in the open is a very common sight in Indian cities. In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, without providing clean and usable toilets, the government imposes a fine of Rs. 100 (about $2), and even prosecutes, anyone caught urinating in the open.

This lack of toilets has adversely affected public health. It is estimated that 600,000 lives are lost in India every year due to diarrhea and one-third of nation's women don't have access to toilets or don't use them. These terrible sanitary conditions not only increase the risk of disease, but also the risk of being raped, as women are compelled to defecate in the open fields before daybreak.

Furthermore, the lack of hygiene is thought to have deeply impacted the tourism industry. International tourists find it extremely difficult to find usable toilets in public places, leaving them with a negative impression of the country. A recent World Bank study estimates that a package of comprehensive sanitation and hygiene interventions could result in averting 45 percent of adverse health impacts and tourism losses.

Another big concern is the absence of trash cans, effective garbage collection, and waste management systems in India's urban areas. With new-found awareness, many young people avoid littering in the open. But where should they dispose of their trash? It is rare to find trash cans on the streets of India's tier-I and tier-II cities. Urban development authorities need to put up trash bins every 200 meters, since they are a precondition for increasing awareness about litter.

Also, most urban development agencies don't have solid waste management facilities. A comprehensive solid waste management policy and willingness to use technology to recycle and reuse the garbage is imperative. Garbage dumping sites in the outskirts of cities are overloaded with trash and are expanding to ecologically sensitive regions including wetlands. For example, in Chennai, one of India's major cities, 3,200 tons of daily refuse ends up in a 65-acre piece of land in Kodungaiyur where the officials burn the garbage. The smoke, combined with an unbearable stench, recently drew massive protests from people living in the surrounding areas.

Photo-ops, the Hidden Purpose of Clean India?

The objectives of the Clean India mission as stated by the government of India are to eliminate open defecation, to convert insanitary toilets into pour flush toilets, to enable the business environment for private sector participation in sanitation and public health-related issues, and to raise awareness among citizens about the linkages between sanitation and public health.

While the mission's intent and purpose have been well received by major political parties in India, cutting across partisan lines, critics worry if this kind of campaign is increasingly becoming a photo-opportunity for celebrities craving for some news space. Public awareness and civic participation are no doubt important. However, the government also needs to have a comprehensive action plan, make budgetary provisions, encourage community-led sanitation, periodically monitor the implementation of its initiatives, and create and maintain a modern infrastructure, in order to accomplish the ambitious goal of becoming Clean India by 2019.

If the Modi government is serious about cleaning India, it can begin by building usable public toilets on a mass scale and working together with corporations, local communities, and non-profits in their maintenance.

The Swachh Bharat campaign is definitely a good start, but it needs to become more than a mere slogan. Otherwise, it will end up being added to the long list of India's many paradoxes.