Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the idea and project of Swachh Bharat in his first Independence Day address from the ramparts of Red Fort, as he urged politicians and corporations to use discretionary funds to build latrines, and linked cleanliness to national pride. On October 2, 2014, when the mission was formally launched, he sought to build a broad alliance to spread awareness of the campaign, recruiting celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Shashi Tharoor and Anil Ambani via social media.
It was an idea with wide resonance — apart from the visible filth that dots community spaces, two-thirds of the 1.1 billion people who practise open defecation and a quarter of the 1.5 million who die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor hygiene and sanitation live in India. Despite significant implementation hurdles, that the PM has made Swachh Bharat a political priority could yet energise the citizenry into taking ownership of the clean-up and drive behavioural change.
Twelve months on, studies, however, show that the mission is struggling to meet its targets. Primarily intended to “promote cleanliness and hygiene and eliminate open defecation”, with an emphasis on constructing toilets, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation has built 95.23 lakh toilets so far in rural areas — slow progress if it has to hit the 12-crore mark by 2019 — and only a fifth of the yearly target for urban areas has been met. The mission is also lagging behind in its waste collection, transportation and disposal goals. Swachh Bharat has also not done enough to counter criticism that it is too focused on building physical facilities and is scant on detail on how behavioural change could be effected.
The Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, for instance, found in a 2014 report that more than half the people with government-built latrines don’t use them and at least one member from 40 per cent of households with working toilets nevertheless defecated in the open, citing comfort and convenience.
For it to succeed, Swachh Bharat will also have to account for the culture of purity and pollution rural sanitation is embedded in, and more carefully negotiate issues of caste on the ground. A recent study in the BMC Public Health found that “strongly ingrained beliefs around impurity and pollution and the required rituals for purification and cleansing post-defecation in Indian society may play a big part in the choice to continue defecating in the open”. Modi’s use of his bully pulpit has focused much-needed attention on a dirty reality of Indian society, but a cleansing will take more.