“W e are living in 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in open? …. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” thus spoke Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first Independence Day speech on August 15, 2014. This was followed by the launching of Swachh Bharat Mission with the target to eradicate open defecation by 2019. To know how close we are to the goal, travel across the countryside, along the village roads and highways, especially in North India, in the early hours of the day. One comes across hundreds of men and women, carrying water in small vessels, walking to ease themselves. The sight has not changed a bit even as we inch towards the deadline.
It is equally important to bear in mind that building toilets alone will not solve the problem. Out of over six lakh villages, according to official figures, over 2.5 lakhs have been declared open defecation free. But the figures do not reveal the real picture of most of the villages. According to reports, many newly built toilets are lying unused. Proper maintenance of toilets requires several times more water than needed for open defecation. In villages where water is scarce, insufficient even for drinking purpose, none will even dream of wasting it in toilets. Here the Swachh Bharat Mission has hit the biggest roadblock. In drought-hit districts, where women have to walk long distance to fetch potable water, they will not ‘waste’ it for washing down the muck in toilets.
Yet another bane of the cleanliness mission is the over enthusiasm of officials for whom the campaign is just statistics. This became more than evident when officials and policemen resorted to shame people, who ventured out for open defecation, by disrobing them. One should realise that those going out for easing themselves might be doing so for reasons like poverty, lack of awareness, unusable toilets, non-availability of water and so on. Shaming them by naming and taking their snaps is nothing but a lame excuse.
Moreover, toilet construction is only one part of the cleanliness campaign. Equally important are clean streets; proper garbage disposal; pollution-free rivers, land and air. Now take a reality check. One does not have to go far off. Take a round of the very national Capital from where the Mission was announced. The garbage dumps are over-flowing; streets are no better; the Yamuna remains as polluted as before with high toxicity and dirt choking its soul. Delhi skyline sees skyscrapers competing with garbage dumps. The latter pose great threat to people with blasts and fires occurring on and off. A recent online survey showed that 57 per cent respondents said their cities have not become cleaner due to the Swachh Bharat drive. A year back, only 35 per cent had come out with the same response. This clearly shows that the cleanliness drive is losing steam. Mr. Modi’s recent remark that “even 1000 Mahatma Gandhis could not achieve the goal of ‘clean India’ without the participation of 125 crore Indians” seems to be an acceptance of the reality.
(Published on 23rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 43)