Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked that “Sanitation is more important than political independence.”
India has been battling against poor hygiene for decades, making the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Access to water and sanitation for all – especially relevant in this huge nation.
Inadequate sanitation causes rapid spread of disease, with enormous associated personal and economic costs.
Since 2014, there’s been a massive push to improve sanitation and waste management, in the form of the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission. This initiative, arguably the world’s largest ever behavior change program, aims to give every Indian citizen access to clean toilets, to rid the country of open defecation and ensure that all waste is disposed of scientifically.
But in a country with 1.35 billion inhabitants spread across 28 diverse states and 8 Union Territories, the scale of the task cannot be underestimated.
The political will has been resolute, with continued commitment from the highest levels of government. With a total estimated cost of more than US$9 billion, India’s private sector has been heavily involved, with a number of public-private partnerships to help fund the program and related infrastructure, as well as a significant loan from the World Bank,1 along with development assistance from various bilateral, multilateral and private organizations, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), GIZ and UNICEF.
Although centrally sponsored, Swachh Bharat has reached out to state and local leaders to push sanitation to the top of their agendas. There’s been training and numerous grassroots campaigns involving an army of 450,000 ‘sanitation soldiers’ or Swachhagrahis, spreading awareness of safe sanitation.
Add to this a host of multi-media communication campaigns featuring national celebrities, with a goal of ‘making sanitation everyone’s business’, and you have a powerful momentum for change.
There’s even a feature on Google Maps, to help people find local public toilets.
Another critical tactic is the annual surveys of more than 4,000 cities, monitoring progress and gathering feedback from millions of citizens. These surveys not only inform; they also encourage competition between cities to advance the clean India initiative and create better places to live.
Results have been impressive, with 110 million household and public toilets built between 2014 and 2019,2 thanks not only to government subsidies, but significant awareness among the people as well. And 99 percent of India’s cities have been declared open defecation free,3 whilst 100 percent of rural households have access to toilets,4 as of December 2019.
With use of toilets rising, the focus is shifting towards effective solid and liquid waste management, including collecting waste, converting it to compost and energy, and strict controls over dumping, with heavy fines. By 2020, 60 percent of waste was effectively treated.
Phase 2 of Swachh Bharat is now underway and is expected to be completed by 2025.
Plenty of hurdles remain, but there’s no disputing the incredible achievements to date.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that more than 300,000 lives will have been saved between 2014 and 2019, as a result of fewer cases of diarrhea.
One economic study5 suggested that the overall returns to Indian society of the program will be more than four times the cost.
As India continues to battle the impacts of COVID-19, we can only hope that the resolve and strategies that made Swachh Bharat such a success can also help to continue turning the tide of the deadly pandemic.