At the recent “Reinvented Toilet Expo” at Beijing, Bill Gates, while commending President Xi Jinping for his promotion of sanitation in China, stressed that “there have been political leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, that have been willing to talk more about sanitation than political leaders were in the past.” Few would dispute that the honour for the most powerful political push for sanitation goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for launching the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014. This was reaffirmed by the UN Secretary General and 55 ministers of sanitation from around the world who participated at the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention in Delhi last month.
The question most commonly asked by the visiting ministers was: “What led to your prime minister putting sanitation on the top of the country’s developmental agenda?” There was both a sense of wonder, and more than a tinge of envy, that our PM had decided to personally champion the cause of swachhata and the elimination of open defecation in the country.
The importance of political will at the highest level cannot be underestimated. When I was working in the World Bank in Hanoi, our team was supporting the Vietnamese government in scaling up the country’s sanitation. But despite our efforts to help government counterparts in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development design a large-scale sanitation programme, we failed to get the highest level of political leadership excited about the mundane topic of sanitation. Likewise, the unanswered question at most international workshops focused on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 on scaling up sanitation is typically about the challenge of obtaining high-level political support.
In India too, for most of the decades after Independence, sanitation was just another routine, sectoral priority. Despite the significantly adverse health and economic impacts and the obvious indignity suffered by people, especially women, by having to defecate in the open, no previous PM invested his or her political capital in a subject not usually talked about in polite society. For decades, India had held the dubious distinction of being home to the highest number of open defecators in the world. In 2014, as many as 550 million people defecated in the open in rural India. This was a way of life for most Indians, and they saw no good reason to change it. Not surprisingly, many decades after Independence, the cumulative sanitation coverage in rural India was just over 38 per cent.
All of this dramatically changed with PM Modi’s announcement of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on Independence Day in 2014, which triggered a massive transformation in India. Today, rural India’s sanitation coverage is over 96 per cent. Over 450 million people have stopped defecating in the open in a short period of four years. Today, India is witnessing a social revolution — a jan andolan — through the construction and use of toilets.
What triggered this change? Why did the SBM achieve, in just four years, more than all previous sanitation programmes put together? Can the lessons learnt from the success of this mission be a template for other mass-scale social revolutions? In our assessment, there were four clear success factors, one Big ‘P’and three small ‘p’s.
First, “Political Push”: The most important success factor for the SBM was the fact that sanitation was brought into the national consciousness by none other than the Prime Minister of India, and that too in his first major address to the nation. This established sanitation and cleanliness as central to his vision for India. He gave the nation a time-bound goal to work towards achieving a clean and open defecation free India by October 2, 2019. This injected a sense of urgency in the entire administrative system at the Centre, state and district levels and made them prioritise a much-neglected problem. To this day, the PM continues to give the SBM significant prominence, and is in fact the chief communicator of the mission.
Second, ‘public finance’: Triggered by the PM’s firm commitment to the SBM, the finance ministry provided the funds for this ambitious programme with a tight timeline. India has the world’s largest government rural sanitation budget, in excess of $20 billion. The SBM also provides significant financial incentive to socially and economically weaker sections to construct and use toilets, at Rs 12,000 per eligible household.
Third, partnerships: SBM has built several strategic partnerships to mainstream sanitation in all sectors. All ministries of the Government of India are working tirelessly to improve sanitation in their respective spheres of influence like schools, hospitals, anganwadis, highways, markets, and railways. Various national and international developmental agencies and corporates have supported the mission. These strategic partnerships have helped the mission spread its learnings and best practices on behaviour-change rapidly, as well as improve implementation across the country.
Fourth, people’s participation: SBM has scaled up sanitation by involving all sections of society from filmstars to sportspersons to religious leaders to the common man. The September 15 to October 2, 2018 ‘Swachhata Hi Seva’ campaign kicked off by the PM is a good example of an estimated 150 to 200 million people joining the jan andolan. Today, almost every village has swachhagrahis and millions of volunteers work for swachhata with no official titles. SBM is a classic example of the power of the collective and the extraordinary results that can be achieved when people come together for a common cause.
But the three small ‘p’s happened only because of the cascading effect of the first . Political push has to come from the top and then get amplified and accelerated down the line. PM Modi took a big risk in announcing a time-bound programme for sanitation, but high risk also carries high rewards. The gamble is paying off.