View: India can’t keep brooding over ‘glorious pause’ of Swachh Bharat mission

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Large missions rightly require more scrutiny. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), launched almost eight years on Gandhi Jayanti in 2014, cannot continue to rehash the “glorious pause” of October 2019, when all villages, districts and states declared themselves defecation-free at the (ODF), although the country has seen an increase in the initial phase of SBM to deliver safe sanitation at scale and quickly.

Many would view the surveys, including the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) for 2019-21, as a rebuttal of the 2019 ODF declaration. But the fact is that the methodology, circumstances and parameters of these surveys do not quite correspond to the objectives set by SBM. Even for NFHS-5, safe sanitation has increased by about 20% in five years. The prevalence of diarrhea in children under 5 and the incidence of stunting and wasting decreased by about 2%. Recent studies have shown that safety, security and dignity, especially of women, have been the reason – and the result – of the toilet revolution in India. All told, while 11.5 crores of safe toilets is a matter of numbers on the ground, an outcome like an ODF village or town will require constant attention.

SBM is a demonstration that “mission impossible” is actually possible through passionate and innovative implementation. This intangible gain is spectacular. SBM has created the necessary confidence and template on the role of communication in the achievement of public missions. Later missions like POSHAN (Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition) Abhiyaan to reduce malnutrition, and Jal Jeevan Mission to extend tap water to all households, carry the influence of SBM, dubbed the greatest program of change behavior in the world.

Last month, India led the global launch of the Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) movement, a major behavior change plan that has SBM. The central vision is to foster sustainable lifestyles that are in harmony with the environment, involving all communities. Much will depend on a global Andolan jan in favor of the troika of behavior – reduce, reuse and recycle, just as millions of people in India have embraced the daily choice of toilet use.

Admittedly, in its second phase, the SBM is faced with the more delicate issues of faecal sludge, plastic waste and gray water treatment. There has been some progress with 22,000 villages reaching a sanitation model beyond ODF and 3.5 lakh villages getting rid of plastic landfills. More villages are trying to catch up.

Meanwhile, the intensity has shifted to the urban space, where more than 35% of India’s population lives. Some urban areas appear cleaner and towns like Indore have attracted businesses using the sanitation brand. But they must comprehensively address the threat of solid waste to meet the aspiration of waste-free cities (GFCs) by 2026.

Indian cities and towns produce about 1.4 lakh metric tons of solid waste every day. Compared to the treatment of 20% of the waste at the beginning of SBM, more than 70% of the waste is now treated, but not 100%. In addition to municipal waste, waste comes from plastics, construction and demolition, agriculture and industry. There are also batteries, radioactive, biomedical and electronic waste. These require proper separation and scientific disposal. Liquid waste is a more complex level problem to solve.

Sorting and collection of waste at source has gone from negligible levels to near saturation. But the giant challenge lies in the 16 crore metric tons of legacy waste that sits in dumps scattered across cities and towns and is held under more than 15,000 acres of land, in addition to disrupting the ecology and landscapes. Their dismantling, and preferably the fixation of waste in a circular economy, requires the best public-private partnerships (PPP) and the induction of imaginative technology.

Here, SBM Urban 2.0 is engaged in high activism and rhythmic innovations, some of which to improve the condition of sanitation workers. More than a billion people in India will have to learn to live without single-use plastic (SUP), which was banned on July 1. This includes earbuds and Tetrapak straws. Success will depend on sustainable alternatives and major behavioral change, in addition to minimizing and recycling SUP. Urban sanitation officials have a lot more to do beyond reporting.

After two compromised years of the Covid pandemic, the task remains to ward off any serious threat to the sustainability of the SBM heritage. The continued allocation of funds helps. But the campaign mode cannot be allowed to calm down. The cracks, visible in places, can otherwise turn into gaping holes.

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