The Prime Minister’s grandstanding on Swachh Bharat Diwas 2019 chimed bitterly with the cruel irony that was reported in Rajasthan. Two teenaged girls were lynched for defecating in the open. The underbelly of rural India was sought to be obfuscated with Mr Narendra Modi’s proud boast that villages are now open defecation free.
Not quite. The public fury against the practice, which is still very much prevalent in rural India, mirrors the hollowness of official claims. It is almost a regular visual through the window of the train as it hurtles across large parts of India. Indeed, there is no precise calibration of the official endeavour, if at all.
Small wonder that the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a premier entity, has questioned the sustainability of the Swachh Bharat Mission, specifically the maintenance of 100 million toilets that have been constructed under the programme. Such vital issues as sanitary back-up have been left delightfully vague.
Very pertinently has the CSE asked the government as to how these toilets will be kept functional. Or for that matter how will the “tonnes of waste” generated by them be disposed off efficiently. No easy task considering the number of toilets that have come up over the past four years India was said to be the home to 60 per cent of the world’s people who defecated in the open. If the nation now achieves ODF status, it signifies a huge leap forward not merely for India but for the world in the wider canvas.
In the realm of public policy, it will take the world a long way as regards its sustainable development goal of universal coverage to toilets and safe disposal of excreta. Markedly, Sunita Narain, director- general of CSE, has tempered her assessment with misgivings that the “massive transition means new, bigger challenges”. She has posed a very pertinent query ~ “Will the extraordinary success of the Swachh Bharat Mission stand the test of time?”
The answer may or may not be a modified yes if the grim reality in Rajasthan and other parts of the Hindi heartland are equally critical benchmarks. It is all very well to say that 100 million toilets have come up, and that by itself is a huge achievement. Yet there is no indication of how they will be kept functional, which must be the next phase of the programme. On the occasion of Swachh Bharat Diwas, Ms Narain has established a link between environmental pollution and efficient disposal of waste.
Despite the toilets, there is no guarantee that the practice of open defecation ~ almost integral to rural India ~ will end. For all the talk of GDP, growth and development, the villages continue to wallow in the mire of overwhelming backwardness. Furthermore, the latest ODF survey was conducted on the basis of a 2012 survey. In several respects, the clock has been turned back over the past seven years.