“Clean India” by 2019: Laudable But Ambitious

The Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges, flows past the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh (Wikimedia Commons)

The Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges, flows past the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh (Wikimedia Commons)

On October 2, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up a broom to sweep the Dalit Colony in the capital New Delhi, he launched the five-year-long Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign with a pledge to give Mahatma Gandhi a cleaner India for the 150th anniversary of his birth. Acknowledging the efforts of past governments in the country and several political, social, and cultural organizations, his appeal to join the campaign cut across class, caste, and opposition parties to focus on the Indian consciousness embedded in Gandhi’s legacy. Writing for Young India as early as 1925, Gandhi emphasized the importance of cleanliness in Indians’ lives: “We can no more gain God’s blessing with an unclean body than with an unclean mind. A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city.” Eighty-nine years later, India is still not on track to halving its population that lives without improved sanitation by 2015—included in Millennium Development Goal 7—while its own goal of Total Sanitation for all by 2012 is still far from being realized. For a country aspiring to be a global power, an economic power-house, and a tourist attraction, the basic health and sanitation needs of its people and societies are the first steps towards accomplishing this goal.

With sanitation as a pressing need, the Swachh Bharat campaign launched with a fervor that seems to have electrified the whole of India with the sight of the country’s prime minister, top ministry officials, bureaucrats, celebrities, and industrialists like Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Ambani sweeping the streets of Mumbai and Delhi. This vision and intent is commendable, and carries powerful symbolism for India as a whole. It invokes national and civilizational memory while linking cleanliness as a value to economic activity and GDP growth, reduction in health care costs, a source of employment, and a force attracting global interest towards India.

The project’s five-year timeframe is an ambitious one, however. India faces challenges on all fronts. From littering, urinating, and spitting in public spaces to dumping untreated sewage in rivers and representing the country with the highest open defecation numbers worldwide, the task of Clean India by 2019 seems overwhelming. While Indians follow the NIMBY (not in my backyard) framework rather stringently, keeping their own houses and backyards clean, they fail to see the value and benefits in scaling it up to the national level. The challenge of urban and rural sanitation is daunting. In Water Security in India: Hope, Despair and Challenges of Human Development, which I co-authored, we found that about 42 percent of the urban population does not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Of that percentage, 14 percent still defecate in the open. In the rural areas, the practice of open defecation is even more severe, affecting 66 percent of the population. The poorest of the poor have hardly benefitted from any sanitation improvements. Approximately 74 percent of the rural population does not use any water disinfection method due to lack of education and financial resources. Most slums are concentrated around nallahs, hillside valleys that help divert torrential flooding. Forty-eight percent of them are affected by waterlogging during the monsoons, however, which threatens safe drinking water, sanitation, and a clean environment for these populations. Two-thirds of the sewage comes from the municipal sector. Seventy percent of the effluents are untreated and disposed of in bodies of water.

Furthermore, most of India’s rivers are dead or dying. The results of a performance audit—extended over 140 projects, 24 polluted stretches of rivers, 20 lakes, and 116 blocks across 25 states in India—indicates that, after 26 years of implementation and enforcement of pollution control programs, water in the rivers remain critically polluted. The National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) inspection and monitoring of projects was found to be inadequate at all three levels: local, state, and central. Dumping solid waste in landfills as India’s current main waste management strategy does not support the sanitation drive and will reach a point where human habitation will either coexist or fall victim to the filth and toxins released from these areas.

One hundred percent coverage in both water supply and sanitation, recommended as early as 1949, still eludes India. An answer to the question of whether Clean India can be achieved is therefore not easily forthcoming. We are in a crisis, and most reforms generally begin in a crisis. There are two major challenges to achieving MDG 7: the failure to link water and sanitation policy to the rapid pace of urbanization, which requires a major effort even to keep up the current coverage levels, and a huge backlog of rural people deprived of basic sanitation and safe drinking water, which calls for an intensive mobilization of resources to reduce the vast coverage gap between urban and rural populations.

Beyond the infrastructural coverage and construction strategy, the most challenging task of cultural and behavioral change has led to the failure of millions of toilets built under earlier regimes. A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet Global Health reported that government planning should “target latrine use, not latrine coverage,” as well as link the sanitation program with “other environmental health schemes, including safe drinking water and hand-washing, that will limit other forms of exposure.” The program of sanitation is still disconnected from the drinking-water schemes, and new management practices need to remove these handicaps. From an institutional and policy perspective, the failure to appropriately link governance, decision-making and management of rural water supply and sanitation with Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Village Water Supply and Sanitation Committees has led to a lack of ownership and accountability. Similarly, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) lack financial resources, which makes sanitation a lesser priority without policies to segregate waste into biodegradable, non-biodegradable, and recyclable categories at the point of production. Urban bodies lack the infrastructure and manpower to efficiently collect garbage from households and waste dumpsters, and to monitor compliance to maintain cleanliness in public spaces. Investments and Public-Private partnerships are areas that ULBs have currently started to explore to meet this challenge.

A regulatory policy and institutional analysis demonstrates that a number of factors contribute to the policy slippage which has led to increased water and sanitation problems. The principle used in pollution control regulations was that firms not complying with the law would be fined. Organizations found it economically advantageous to avoid compliance with the law and pay the penalty adding to pollution in water bodies. The government of India does not have a pollution tax as such, and the water cess (a tax earmarked for a specific purpose) is too nominal to enforce compliance. A ‘polluter pays principle’ should be adopted fully in the managing of polluted water through pollution taxes, penalties, and price structures. Policy outcome is measured in terms of how many networks are established and how many emission standards have been set up, rather than the degree to which water quality has improved or performance evaluated. An example of institutional ineffectiveness can be illustrated by the fact that the Water Quality Assessment Authority (WQAA), established in 2001, met just seven times before 2011. Lack of designated sites for waste disposal and the citing of facilities for hazardous waste limit opportunities for sanitation. Incentives need to be provided for the development of pollution-abatement technologies and treatment technologies by setting up zero-discharge industrial estates. Several factors point towards an institutional failure and a low level of transparency in the activities and accountability of institutions. Poor monitoring of networks to track pollution of water, failure to update and revise water quality parameters, the absence of a database, and poor dissemination of data are indicators of a failed system of internal controls. The consequence is a dismal performance record because of the inherent characteristics of the policy process—regulation, tutelage, and policy leniency.

The Clean India campaign seems to have begun almost along the lines of the ALS Ice Bucket challenge that recently spread across global social media. The spirit and effort is laudable, but the challenge lies in sustaining a critical mass of groups from diverse fields, creating enough momentum, and making a difference toward the mitigation of some of these problems and their ill-effects. The solutions are often within India’s reach, and the thousands of local-level actions taken within the country are important and courageous steps in the right direction. However, these sporadic efforts need to be maintained and scaled up nationally if Indian society is to begin to understand the true value of a Clean India.

Vandana Asthana

Vandana Asthana is a Professor of Government and International Affairs at Eastern Washington University. She holds doctorates in both political science from Kanpur University and in natural resources and environmental science from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her areas of research include South Asian security focusing on nontraditional threats and human security, with special reference to water, environment, and development. Most recently, she is the co-author of Water Security in India: Hope, Despair and Challenges of Human Development, which was published in October 2014 by Bloomsbury.

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