India’s high-profile Swachh Bharat programme has won it plaudits globally for its goal of providing sanitation to all, but as new survey data from the National Statistical Office (NSO) show, it remains a work in progress. The quest to equip houses in the countryside with a toilet has led to an expansion, but there was a deficit of about 28% as of October last year and not 5% as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Gramin) had claimed. The declaration that the country has ended open defecation in its rural areas, made to international acclaim on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, must return to the wish list, going by this survey. It is extraordinary that many States that were declared to be free of open defecation simply did not qualify for the status, according to the NSO data. The Centre has disputed the survey results, but it should ideally treat it as a fresh assessment of how much ground is yet to be covered. The data could help it review performance in States such as Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, where the lack of toilets is reported to be higher than the national average. More fundamentally, the survey provides an opportunity to review other social determinants such as education, housing and water supply which have a strong influence on adoption of sanitation. It would be pointless to pursue sanitation as a separate ideal, if communities are unable to see its benefits due to overall deprivation.
The Central government has been reiterating its claims on rural India becoming entirely open defecation-free (ODF) on the basis of declarations made by States. Just last week, the Ministry of Jal Shakti said the coverage in 5,99,963 villages had risen from 38.7% in 2014, to 100% this year. It is indisputable that the number of toilets has gone up significantly, and for which taxpayers remitted about ₹20,600 crore as a cess since 2015, until the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. Yet, there is evidence to show that this has not translated into use everywhere. The NSO survey results add a new dimension, since they controvert data relied upon by the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on ODF. It will take a marathon programme to bring all-round development to India’s villages, which have not really benefited from years of fast-paced economic growth. Rural housing and water supply are key to bringing toilet access to all, and it is doubtful whether the 2.95 crore subsidised dwellings targeted to be built by 2022 under the government’s flagship housing programme can bridge the shortfall. It is well-recognised that development indices are low in some States, and local bodies lack the capacity and resources to bring universal sanitation even where political will is present. Sustained work to eliminate black spots in coverage and a massive urban programme are critical to ending open defecation and universalising toilet access.
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