Human Development

How serious is the government about Swachh Bharat Mission?

  • Blog Post Date 20 March, 2015
  • Perspectives
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The recently announced Union budget 2015-16 has reduced the central government allocation for Swachh Bharat Mission – the flagship sanitation programme of the government. In this article, Sangita Vyas, Managing Director for Sanitation at r.i.c.e., questions the commitment of the government to eliminating open defecation in India by 2019.

Several weeks ago, we learned that the central government allocation to the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in the coming financial year will be Rs. 3,500 crore (US$583.3 mn approx.), which is less than the current budgetary allocation of Rs. 4,260 crore (US$710 mn approx.) and much less than the originally promised Rs. 134,000 crore (US$22.3 bn approx.) over five years. With this amount of money, the government will hardly be able to build a toilet for every household lacking one in the next five years, as was initially promised. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t actually wish the financial outlay were any larger because research has shown that building latrines will do little to promote latrine use (Coffey et al. 2014). What this announcement represents, however, is one more reason to believe that the government is not serious about achieving its goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019.

Swachh Bharat guidelines are just more of the same old sanitation policy

Since 2 October 2014, when the SBM was launched with iconic images of the Prime Minister sweeping the road in New Delhi’s Valmiki Colony, the issue of sanitation has been getting less and less public attention from PM Modi. The SBM guidelines were released back in mid-December to very little fanfare. Despite all the commitments made on 2 October, the guidelines hardly represent any meaningful shift in strategy from the prior government’s policy. The new guidelines are just more of the same, and suggest that there has been very little acknowledgement that the past 15 years of government sanitation programmes in India have failed to achieve anything at all.

The new funding structure means less accountability

More recently, we learned that the SBM is one of the centrally-sponsored schemes for which the funding arrangement will change under the aegis of cooperative federalism. This may explain the reduction in the budgetary allocation for the SBM since under the new sharing pattern states will receive a greater share of taxes and duties, which they can spend on programmes like sanitation if they so desire, or not. These changes will relieve states from their already minimal expectation of accountability.

States have always been responsible for implementing sanitation, and the guidelines for the centrally-sponsored scheme have always been just that: a suggested course of action. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has used this argument in the past to explain why some states have simply not implemented some important aspects of the policy, and why the Ministry can do nothing about it. But moving more in the direction of alternative funding arrangements may make it easier for Mr Modi to wash his hands of the issue altogether. In October 2019, when millions of people still defecate in the open, it will be easier for Mr Modi to say it’s not his fault the country failed to become open-defecation free.

No word on the promised latrine-use survey

Perhaps the best part of the lacklustre SBM guidelines is a call for monitoring latrine use in addition to latrine construction. Yet, there seem to be no plans to carry this important survey forward. Even though it would be easy and inexpensive to conduct a latrine use survey, there has been no news since the guidelines were released about three months ago about how or when this survey will happen. Failing to follow through on this promise would be extremely convenient for a government that knows the findings of such a survey would be an embarrassment.

Is the government washing its hands of open defecation in India?

In this context, I fear this budget announcement represents the last nail in the coffin of the government’s sanitation promises. Despite Mr Modi’s initial excitement and enthusiastic commitments, very little has changed. We have the same policy and the same budget as we did under the previous government.

If you think it’s possible to do better with the same policy, consider the case of Gujarat. As Chief Minister, Mr Modi could only achieve a 1 percentage point reduction in rural open defecation per year in the state between 2001 and 2011 (Census 2001, 2011). At this rate, with these policies, India will take more than 50 years to eliminate open defecation.

It’s not clear why Mr Modi is abandoning his flagship programme. Does he actually think that what he has done so far is sufficient for eliminating open defecation by 2019? Was it all just a political stunt, as many observers have suggested? Is he trying to save himself from the embarrassment of failing when 2019 eventually rolls around and millions of people still defecate in the open?

There is no doubt that eliminating open defecation in India is going to be very difficult, even if the goal is 2030 instead of 2019. Beliefs around purity and pollution, India’s unique history of ‘untouchability’, and the ongoing renegotiation of caste identities and status, prevent widespread use of the kinds of simple latrines the Indian government builds (Coffey 2014, Coffey et al. 2015). India’s sanitation challenge is different from every other country in the world because of this unique social and cultural context. This unfortunately means that the solutions are going to have to be unique too.

But nothing about SBM is unique: it’s the same-old, but now with less accountability. Perhaps if the Prime Minister is unwilling to confront the uncomfortable cultural roots and social truths behind India’s internationally bad sanitation, it makes sense politically for him to distance himself from the unsanitary mess. It’s too bad India’s growing children don’t also have the option of moving away from the germs, death, and disease spread by open defecation.

A version of this article has appeared on

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