Eliminating Open Defecation in India: Tracking the Progress under Modi Government
A key pillar of the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat programme is providing each household access to toilet and eliminating open defecation. In his first Independence Day address to the nation, he had shared his resolve of achieving a 'Clean India' by 2019, the 150th birth anniversary year of Mahatma Gandhi.
When the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on 2nd October 2014, only around four out of ten rural households (41.9 percent) in the country had access to a toilet within their household. For achieving the objective of universal access to toilets by 2019, the government has had set the ambitious target of constructing close to 10 crore toilets in a span of five years.
Why is this objective important?
Apart from safeguarding individual dignity, there are numerous reasons why it is important for the government to ensure that each citizen has access to a toilet. First, open defecation could lead to major health problems. For instance, it is one of the most common reasons for the spread of diseases like Diarrhoea. Second, the prevalence of open defecation is an important factor behind high malnourishment in the country.Third, effects on educational outcomes as children, especially girl students, are reluctant to go to schools if proper toilet facilities aren't available. Fourth, tabsence of toilets also leads to security concerns for women. There have been numerous instances across the country when women were raped or teased when they had to go to public spaces, often at night, for toileting.
The government is doing much better than UPA
Currently, around six out of ten households (61.72 percent) have access to toilets. A 20 percentage point increase in three years is a huge achievement for the country. This has been possible due to a significant increase in the number of toilets constructed annually with government support.
At the half way stage, progress on Swachh Bharat Mission is commendable as close to four crore toilets have been built since October 2014. Under the Modi government, there has been a substantial increase in the number of toilets constructed annually. For instance, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, less than 50 lakh toilets were built every year. This increased exponentially after the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. In 2016-17, more than 2 crore household toilets were constructed across the country. The rate of toilet construction may have increased significantly since the launch of Swachh Bharat but it falls short of what the government needs to achieve if it wants to fulfil its objective of zero open defecation by 2019.
Open Defecation Status: Need to address deeper issues
Apart from individual household targeting, there is also a focus on making local communities open defecation free (ODF). The government is encouraging Gram Panchayats to ensure there is no open defecation within their area and declare themselves as ODF. This is important because gains like reduction in incidence of Diarrhoea generally occur when the entire local community eliminates open defecation. Currently, around 1,93,374 villages across the country have declared their status as ODF. But, it is disappointing to note that less than half of these 83,556 villages are verified ODF villages.
The standard verification process is important as it certifies that the village has been ODF for at least six months after the declaration. We must understand that mere construction of toilets or declaration of villages as ODF is not enough. It is necessary that households/villages continue to use the facilities. Often, toilets become dysfunctional due to bad maintenance, inadequate sewage facilities or poor quality. This forces households to return to open defecation. Thus, mere construction of toilets alone should not be the government's goal. It is important for the government to ensure that toilets remain under use and the problem does not recur.
Undoubtedly, the Modi government has undertaken a huge task by promising to eliminate open defecation. The task is challenging because apart from meeting the massive infrastructure deficit, the government also needs to induce a behavioural change among the masses. Considering this, it would be safe to say that the Modi government has made reasonable progress under the Swachh Bharat mission. However, sustaining the efforts made by the government and maintaining the public participation would be important in the coming months. The success of this mission hinges on how well people and the government are able to synchronize their efforts.
(Pranav Gupta is an independent researcher. Nitin Mehta is managing partner at Ranniti Consulting and Research.)