One of the prime development agendas of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the stewardship of Narendra Modi was to launch a major sanitation and cleanliness drive. The Prime Minister sounded the bugle for behavioural change on August 15, 2014, and launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on October 2 that year. Striking an emotional chord with the women of India, he lamented that “sisters and mothers” were forced to defecate in the open and said the country had a “responsibility” towards them. The Modi government has a grandiose plan to make the country free from open defecation by October 2, 2019, which will be the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Quoting Gandhi’s thoughts that sanitation was more important than independence, the government reduced the Father of the Nation to a symbol of sanitation, forgetting everything else that he had believed in.
The idea with an emotive content metamorphosed into a mission as the government went on an advertising-cum-awareness blitz to convince people about the merits of toilet use, the demerits of open defecation and the need to keep the environment “swachh”, or hygienic. The public health component got added to it gradually so much so that stunting and wasting among children was attributed to good or bad sanitation practices. The government report card, three years later, states that individual household toilet coverage rose from 42 per cent in 2014 to 64 per cent in 2017 and 1.5 lakh villages, 137 districts, and three States declared themselves open defecation free. According to the Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, India will be free of open defecation by 2019.
A cleanliness drive fortnight was launched before October 2, 2017. Young men in uniform, all contract employees of Sanitation Departments of various States, were seen sweeping roads in cities into the wee hours.
The concept of fortnightly cleanliness campaigns, or Swachhta Pakhwada, was launched in April 2016. This involved government departments and Ministries who had to undertake cleanliness drives and prepare reports as well. It was another matter that garbage disposal and garbage collection mechanisms were still in the rudimentary level and hardly adequate. Solid waste management and disposal, which was made a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, was not accorded as much importance as cleanliness. Of the 1,27,486 tonnes of municipal waste generated, 70 per cent was collected but only 12.45 per cent was processed or treated. House-to-house collection of waste and its hygienic transportation was a major challenge, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) observed in its status report on solid waste management.
Solid waste management A paper on “Municipal Solid Waste Management in India: Current state and future challenges, a review” by Rajendra Kumar Kaushal, George K. Varghese and Mayuri Chabukdhara of the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, found that municipal solid waste management, one of the major environmental challenges in Indian megacities, was going through a critical phase in view of the unavailability of suitable facilities to treat and dispose of the waste. Urbanisation and changing lifestyles had resulted in Indian cities generating eight times more solid waste today than they did in 1947, the study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Engineering Science and Technology said. It said the municipal solid waste quantities were expected to increase from 34 million tonnes in 2000 and 83.8 million tonnes in 2015 to 221 million tonnes by 2030. There was also a correlation between the gross domestic product (GDP) and the amount of waste generated; the higher the GDP, the more the waste generation. Municipal solid waste disposal in low-income cites was haphazard compared with that in high-income cities, where it was likely to be more organised. The study also found a change in the composition of solid waste, with a decline in the compostible and inert matter components and an increase in components such as paper, plastic and glass.
The study found that most urban areas lacked solid waste storage facilities; common bins were used for both decomposable and non-decomposable waste; and the average efficiency of municipal solid waste collection was 72 per cent in the States although all the cities did not have waste collection services. Waste collection and disposal was very poor in low-income States with people unable or unwilling to pay for services. Waste was often thrown near or around homes making collection and transportation difficult. The CPCB findings, quoted in the IIT study, indicated that manual collection accounted for 50 per cent and garbage collection trucks accounted for 49 per cent of all waste collection in 299 Tier-1 cities surveyed in India. The study found that 60-90 per cent of solid waste in cities was disposed of on land, and measures were not in tune with the principles of sanitary land filling. The collapse of the 50-metre landfill in Ghazipur on the outskirts of Delhi in September 2017 resulting in the death of two young men was a lesson on the dangers of faulty disposal of solid waste. The dump was 30 m above the stipulated height. Such was the force of the garbage slide that when huge chunks fell into an adjoining canal of the Hindan river, the waves that they generated dragged cars and bicycles into a second canal. There are other landfill sites in Delhi, little mountains of garbage with gases smouldering inside. Ironically, the bulk of the municipal budget allocated for solid waste management was spent on collection and transportation.
Waste dumping was done in low-lying areas that had the attendant risks of flooding and contamination of the surface water during the rainy season. In sum, the study found that in India, there was “no organised and scientifically planned source segregation except for industrial waste…. Sorting was mostly done by the unorganised sector (scavengers and rag pickers) and rarely done by waste generators.” The hazardous conditions of such segregation were well known, the study observed. The efficiency of waste collection even in high-income cities such as Delhi was low.
The focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the Namami Gange campaign (making villages near the Ganga free of open defecation) continues to be on toilets and on discouraging people from defecating in the open. Rural sewage systems and the availability of water for sanitation have not received the kind of importance they should have been accorded.
According to the government, since 2014, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Haryana have achieved 100 per cent toilet coverage for households, while Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Puducherry and Uttar Pradesh reported the lowest toilet coverage for households. Less than 40 per cent of the households in Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir had toilets, while the corresponding figure for Odisha was 43.2 per cent, Puducherry 49.2 per cent and Uttar Pradesh 51.1 per cent. Six States and 220 districts were now “open defecation free”. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and the Quality Council of India showed that nearly 90 per cent of those who owned toilets were using them.
Hounding people to use toilets In their zeal to declare themselves open defecation free, some States embarked on an obnoxious idea that involved public shaming of individuals caught defecating in the open. On October 2, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared that all the 384 municipalities in the State would be open defecation free. In what he thought was a truly novel approach, he announced that his government would soon launch a programme to shame those who defecated in the open. Under a mechanism called “ODF watch”, government officials, including teachers, would be literally asked to “blow the whistle” on people caught defecating in the open so as to shame them. As toilets had been installed in many cities of the State, the idea was to first “encourage” and then to force them to use “toilets”, he said. It was odd that while the Prime Minister waxed eloquent on preserving the dignity of women and their right to have toilets, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State governments were not particularly bothered about right to privacy and issues of individual dignity. In Pratapgarh district in Rajasthan, a man was beaten to death as he protested against zealous government officials wanting to photograph women from his family “defecating” in the open in order to expose such citizens. Cancelling ration cards, photographing defecators without their permission, and denying government benefits are other undemocratic methods deployed by some State governments to force people to use toilets. The BJP governments in Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have made toilet provision in their households mandatory for candidates aspiring to contest panchayat elections. In August 2016, Bihar passed a similar law. There are no such conditions imposed for contesting State Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. In a sense, democracy was challenged at the grass-roots level, denying people a chance to contest local body elections and depriving the voter a chance to elect a candidate of his or her choice. The irony is that courts have upheld the passage of such laws.
The bigger irony is that despite the high-decibel campaign, linking toilets to the right of people to contest elections, toilet usage, according to NSSO data, is as low as 20 per cent in Jharkhand, another BJP-ruled State.
Deaths in sewers The focus on “clean” India does not include hundreds of young men who enter storm water drains without any safety gear to unclog them. Sewage systems in cities and towns are rudimentary, resulting in frequent clogging and overflow during heavy rains. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits engaging sanitation workers without safety equipment. The use of machinery in sewerage systems continues to be negligible, and coupled with the absence of safety equipment, the rate of death of workers in sewers has been going up steadily despite the Act and despite the multitude of campaigns around the issue. On October 1, a day before Gandhi Jayanti, three housekeeping workers of an auto spare parts company was asphyxiated to death while trying to save one of their colleagues who had fallen into a septic tank in Gurgaon. The 25-year-old worker had climbed down into the septic tank to clean it without any safety equipment. While he began to choke, his colleagues stepped in to save him, losing their lives in the process. Six States have reported sewage-related deaths to the government and have given compensation. Among them, Tamil Nadu reported 144 deaths, the highest number so far since the enactment of the legislation. In a period of one month, 10 persons died while cleaning sewers. A Delhi High Court bench took cognisance of these deaths and directed the government to pay compensation of Rs.10 lakh each to families of the victims and directed all the civic bodies to explain themselves to the court.
The clean India mission is, therefore, narrow in vision. It cannot be limited to toilet use alone while leaving out a huge spectrum of areas that require urgent and immediate intervention. Debarring people who do not own a toilet from contesting local body and panchayat elections is as abominable as the wanton deaths of young men in sewers. Neither should it be acceptable in a democracy such as ours. The obsession with toilet construction is bad enough, to project it as a hallmark of emancipation or development is a travesty of facts.