Clean India Mission

Beneath the hype

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan in New Delhi on October 2. Photo: REUTERS/PTI

The NSSO's 69th round revealed that on average a person in rural India had to spend 20 minutes a day to fetch drinking water. Here, a scene in Adilabad district, Telangana. Photo: S. Harpal Singh

An open drain in Mysore, Karnataka. It is cheaper to make toilets than to pledge funds for extension services such as sewerage pipes or sewage treatment plants. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

A badly maintained public toilet at a municipal market in Udhagamandalam, Tamil Nadu. Photo: D. Radhakrishnan

The Prime Minister launches the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, or Clean India Mission, with much fanfare but there is little evidence that the government is really addressing the many factors behind the lack of toilets and cleanliness in the country.

BHAMBHEVA village in Jind district, Haryana, does not have much of a sewerage system. The villagers are reconciled to clogged and narrow drains adjacent to their dwellings and dirty pools of stagnant water. The majority of the Valmiki (Scheduled Caste) households in this village do not have toilets. “We all go to the fields. There is hardly any space to construct a toilet inside the house; besides, there is no drainage system. Even if we have a septic tank, there are costs to get it cleaned. We are all daily wage workers,” said one in a group of Valmiki youth. According to the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 69th round (Key Indicators of Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition, July 2012-December 2012), 59.4 per cent of rural India and 8.8 per cent of urban India have no latrine facility and only 31.9 per cent of rural India and 63.9 per cent of urban India have exclusive use of latrines.

Bhambeva’s dilemma is therefore not unique. According to the NSSO, only 31.7 per cent of rural households in the country have access to an improved drainage facility in the environment of their dwelling units. Another shocker is that only 32 per cent of rural households (75.8 per cent of urban households) have some garbage disposal arrangement.

On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the need for more toilets in the country, and on October 2, in the speech that launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, or Clean India Mission, he called on people to get involved in keeping their surroundings clean. His dual exhortation was received with a lot of scepticism. The propaganda bombardment on an issue as basic as cleanliness and the money spent on it had a “shock-and-awe” impact. The Ministries of Rural Development and Information and Broadcasting issued interesting radio jingles, incorporating the themes of communal amity and the need for cleanliness in the country, to keep the clean campaign momentum going. After all, Modi had declared that by 2019, that is, by the end of the tenure of the present government, India would be clean. Some opinion pieces and editorials took solace in the fact that disparate political entities ranging from Ministers in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to those in the present government were finally talking about toilets. It is another matter that issues such as increased public expenditure on water and sanitation and the other factors that make up the complete package of integrated public health are by and large ignored. There appears to be an undeclared competition for the title of “toilet” ambassador of the country.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan effectively replaces the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan, the sanitation project of the UPA government, and its focus is exclusively on building toilets even though a good part of Modi’s launch speech was devoted to exhorting people to participate in a mass cleanliness campaign. The work, he underscored, was not to be done only by the government or Ministers or social organisations and social workers. Much faith was also reposed in the abilities of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes.

The ambitious project, with a total cost estimate of Rs.1.96 lakh crore, envisages building 12 crore toilets by 2019. Of this, Rs.62,000 crore will be spent on urban India. The unit cost of the toilets has also been raised from Rs.10,000 to Rs.12,000. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s appeal roused a deep nationalistic sentiment among sections of the youth, which was kept alive by the constant televised messages on sanitation. Most people also saw nothing wrong in the call to contribute two hours a week to clean up the environment. Few, however, questioned the logic of voluntary labour being used so that the government can avoid its responsibility to create more infrastructure and more paid jobs. Assuming that one public sector employee worked 40 hours a week for 48 weeks in a year, the annual work of that employee would total 1,920 hours, which would approximately equal the 104 hours a year of voluntary labour of 19 persons. If the 750 million Indians who are in the working-age group each put in 104 hours of work annually, they will do work equivalent to that done by 40 million public sector employees. At present, the public sector employs fewer than 18 million people.

Notwithstanding all these facts, a leading television channel declared its intention to contribute to the campaign through a tie-up with a multinational disinfectant brand. While popular film actors and Congress Minister Shashi Tharoor were roped in to be part of the campaign, a Bollywood star known for his interest in social causes read the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan pledge out publicly with the Prime Minister.

Access to drinking water

According to the NSSO data, the figures for access to drinking water in two States governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party are not encouraging. Among the bigger States, Madhya Pradesh has the distinction of having the lowest proportion of households with sufficient drinking water and Chhattisgarh has the lowest figures for access to drinking water within the household premises. The survey also reveals that on average a person in rural India has to spend 20 minutes a day to fetch drinking water; for Jharkhand, that figure is nearly 40 minutes. It is not a coincidence that the rates of open defecation are highest in Jharkhand. According to the Census, nearly 77 per cent of households in the State are without latrines and 92 per cent of rural households defecate in the open. Clearly, for daily wagers, people out of work and those involved in fetching water for household needs, the appeal to contribute two hours a week of voluntary labour to cleaning up the environment will have little meaning.

Garbage disposal

Similarly, it has been pointed out that cleaning and garbage disposal work is largely done on a contractual basis and that those who do it are ill paid, are not provided with the necessary protective gear and lack any form of social security against the morbidity and mortality that results from the work they do. Garbage disposal is itself a huge grey area. The figures obtained from the Central Pollution Control Board reveal that in cities where municipalities exist (30 per cent of Indian cities are not covered by municipalities), 1.3 lakh tonnes of solid waste is generated daily. Urban India generates a total of 68 million tonnes of solid waste annually. But only one-third of this is cleared; the rest lies around in streets, lanes and drains. It is estimated that one-fourth of India’s sewage treatment capacity is in Delhi.

There is evidence to show that toilets built through government schemes lie unused—livestock is sometimes kept in such places—because of the lack of running water to flush down the sewage. An evaluation study of the Planning Commission showed that while “mindset” problems, traditional practices and lack of awareness were factors leading to lack of sanitation, inadequate availability of water and the lack of maintenance funds were the biggest reasons for it. Indians do not choose to be dirty or live in insanitary conditions for cultural reasons or because they like being in such a state.

A report on “Financing Water and Sanitation: Public Realities”, authored by David Hall and Emanuele Lobina for the 6th World Water Forum held in Marseilles, France, in 2012, presented evidence to show that historically the great majority of investment in water and sanitation services in high-income regions of the world (Europe, North America and Japan) was made by the public sector using public finance through taxation. In France, “the extension of the system was carried out by municipalities and not by private operators. Central governments as a whole played a key role in financing investment in water systems and in managing water resources and floods.”

The authors argue: “The advantages of public finance are that the state pays lower interest than the private sector, it avoids [the problem] that poorer ‘consumers’ cannot afford to pay full costs, and the major benefits of universal water and sanitation connections are public health, not private gains. The orthodox approach has failed to generate significant amounts of private investment in developing countries.” They point out: “In Africa, the most important source of finance is the public sector in middle-income countries and donor aid in low-income countries: the private sector contribution is close to zero. In India, the private sector contribution is also close to zero, with national, State and local governments financing nearly all the investment.”

The authors say that the growth of “municipal socialism (or ‘gas and water socialism’)” drove the development of local public services in Europe. The public sector was seen as “a mechanism to fulfil a set of economic and political objectives—economic development, public health and improvement of social conditions for the urban poor. The municipalities developed financial mechanisms superior to the private sector, including borrowing long-term money from local savers, at low interest rates because of the security of their flow of income from taxes…. The process of municipalisation was even more rapid in the USA than in Europe: by 1897, 82 per cent of the largest cities were served by municipal operations. Municipalisation was seen as a way to overcome the systemic inefficiencies of the private contractors….”

Giving examples of public financing of water and sanitation, the paper says: “In Hungary, despite privatisation of water in most major cities, tax revenues of central government continue to be the main source for financing investment in infrastructure.” Quoting a 2009 study, the authors say that in France, too, the funding for water services was largely public, with private funding accounting for only 12 per cent of the investment. However, though there is no evidence of private water companies investing in water systems in Europe and in the United States, the authors say that since 1990 the central model the World Bank and other international agencies have been promoting is of the private water company investing, developing and operating water and sanitation services in middle- and low-income countries. Interestingly, World Bank studies themselves have shown that private participation in infrastructure is disappointing. The authors quote a World Bank research paper in 2006 that reviewed actual private investment in infrastructure in developing countries between 1983 and 2004: “PPI [private participation in infrastructure] has disappointed —playing a far less significant role in financing infrastructure in cities than was hoped for, and which might be expected given the attention it has received and continues to receive in strategies to mobilise financing for infrastructure….”

Reflecting on the shrinking role of the municipalities, Professor Amitabh Kundu, senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group, a think tank based in the capital, told Frontline that the total piped water provided by urban local bodies had come down from 74 per cent in 2008-09 to 69 per cent. “It can be argued that people are drinking bottled water, but the total figure for both tap as well as bottled water has come down from 77 per cent to 73 per cent.”

The overall coverage, he said, had gone up because of hand pumps, tubewells, open wells, which were all privately owned and paid for. The water collected from different distances had gone up for certain religious groups. The usage of public latrines had gone down from 24 per cent to 21 per cent as the community facilities were not managed well. Between the 66th and 69th NSSO Rounds, the garbage collected from households by various agencies, panchayats, municipalities and corporations in the urban sector had gone down by at least 10 percentage points, indicating a decline in municipal services.

The figures for “no arrangement for solid garbage disposal” went up from 21.4 per cent to 24.2 per cent. While underground sewerage systems showed an improvement in coverage, it was more in middle-class localities where the services were provided by resident welfare associations and not municipal bodies. “I welcome the Clean India Mission but there is no road map. Of the Rs.64,000 crore which will be generated, only Rs.14,000 crore will come from the government and the rest is expected to come from the private sector and the corporates. Some Rs.40,000 crore has been allocated for the improvement of toilets. The total number of people who need this is 2.5 crore, which comes to Rs.1,600 per family. This is hardly adequate. Only the middle class and the well-off will make use of this subsidy,” he said.

The corporate sector has pledged to make toilets a part of its CSR; it is cheaper to make toilets than to pledge funds for extension services such as sewage pipes or sewage treatment plants or to ensure water supply to flush the toilets. Quoting figures from the Planning Commission of India, Hall and Emanuele Lobina wrote that while there had been an investment of over $22 billion in water supply and sanitation in the period 2007-12, the contribution of the private sector was only 0.4 per cent.

After the tragic murder of two cousins in May in Badaun district, Uttar Pradesh, there was an uproar about how the violence could have been prevented if there had been toilets at the girls’ homes. A close relative of the family remarked that rather than have a cramped toilet at home with no assured drainage and water supply, it was better to relieve oneself in the open.

It is apparent that the hype around the sanitation debate is because of the need to cultivate India’s international image, and it has, therefore, to a large extent skimmed the surface and veered towards creating public paranoia over how filthy Indians are instead of questioning whether the state has done enough about the issue apart from publicity campaigns involving celebrities.

Innumerable studies done by health economists in recent times underscore the links between open defecation and stunting. The idea that malnutrition might not after all be a function of just reduced levels of food intake and be more due to absorption issues and sanitation levels is fast gaining currency. What goes unnoticed is the observation by the same group of researchers that stunting among Scheduled Tribe populations is attributable to poverty levels. Strangely, the need for heightened public spending is never ever underscored in any debate on sanitation or cleanliness.