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2019-10-04

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Developmental Issues
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India’s declaration on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi that its rural areas are now open defecation-free will be acknowledged around the world as a milestone in its developmental journey. Cleanliness and sanitation were central to Gandhi’s concerns for his vast number of impoverished countrymen, and should ideally have been pursued zealously by governments in free India, along with good housing and access to clean water. In 2014, the NDA government made total sanitation a high priority, with the avowed goal of bridging decades of neglect through a policy focused on toilet construction. That 110 million toilets were built under this programme since then counts as an achievement in itself, even though many of these structures have been bootstrapped to ramshackle dwellings; many do not meet construction standards. Forward-looking as it is, the campaign for universal sanitation and an end to open defecation cannot go far if toilet access is the sole metric of success. One independent survey shows toilets are not used by up to half the population in some places, underscoring the challenge ahead. It is welcome, therefore, that an ODF-Plus programme has been adopted by the Ministry of Jal Shakti to encourage toilet use and create the infrastructure to manage solid and liquid waste in every village. This is a long road, and the Central government can hope to achieve sustainable outcomes only if it prioritises citizen rights and community participation. The campaign has erred in its approach in many instances, opting for coercive methods that produce dreadful consequences.

Development literature makes it clear that bringing one set of freedoms to people, including material benefits, cannot compensate for the loss of others, notably freedom from oppression. This bears mention in the context of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and its efforts to end open defecation, since officials and campaigners have resorted to violence, public shaming and the threat of deprivation of welfare benefits to bring about compliance. Such methods must be ended immediately and voluntary participation encouraged. Of concern too is a possible resort to illegal manual scavenging, since many toilets built under the Swachh mission are not of the prescribed twin-pit design, and will need periodic evacuation. Despite widely reported cases, the Centre does not appear to be eager to eliminate manual waste removal through a war-like effort, under which all States will install sewage and sludge treatment plants. Neither are States keen to strictly enforce the law that makes the practice punishable. In the years ahead, making sanitation universal and sustainable will depend not just on toilets, but on providing decent urban and rural housing, and strengthening another key determinant of development — the right to a good education.

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