My first serious encounter with the science and economics of rural sanitation happened in 1968. Growing up in rural Bihar, I was quite aware of the many evils of dry latrines, or, for that matter, open defecation. However, it was during my days volunteering for the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Committee in Betiah that I truly grasped the whole gamut of associated issues. The challenges that accrued from ‘unscientific’ fecal sludge management were complex and intertwined. It was never a standalone question of sanitation, but one linked to other burning concerns such as rural health, human dignity, women empowerment and village economy. In 2022, as we are celebrating 153 years of Mahatma, it may be worthwhile to review the trajectory of sanitation movement in post-Independence India, reflecting inter alia on its directions, priorities and the striking resurgence of the sanitation discourse following the launch of PM Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014.
Back in the day, before the launch of Sulabh in March 1970, India was trapped in the proverbial ‘catch 22’ situation. The urban sewer system was painfully inadequate, while the rural sewer system was completely absent. The choice, therefore, was generally between open defecation and dry latrines. Unfortunately, both the alternatives were equally hazardous. They not only led to ungodly sights and stinking filth, but also caused soil pollution and sever groundwater contamination. The harmful microorganisms in fecal discharge are so mobile that they can easily pollute a water source from a distance of 30 ft. While the use of fine sand may partially remedy the situation, but during floods—which are quite common in India—the situation may turn frighteningly ugly. This is why rural India saw frequent outbreaks of cholera and other deadly waterborne disease.
Apart from devastating medical emergencies, the system of dry latrines and open defecation led to other chronic problems too. Even though precepts highlighting philosophical linkages between hygiene, health and piety have featured prominently in ancient Indian scriptures, our society somehow relegated the mechanics of sanitation as a peripheral discourse. Likewise, the agents associated with it—sanitation workers and manual scavengers—were cast out as untouchables, often forced to reside outside village limits with pigs and cattle. This social stigma was so rigid that the members of the community could not take on a different profession.
“Sulabh International founder and social activist Bindeshwar Pathak Ji played “a decisive role” in fight against the practice of manual scavenging in the country” — Dattatreya Hosabale, Sarkaryavah, RSS
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services are crucial to addressing issues of livelihoods and health in India, particularly among the poor. It is a scientific commonplace that women and children below the age of five are at the greatest risk when living conditions are unsanitary. Sulabh’s five-decade long career tells me that health crisis in most families, in both rural and urban settings, quickly escalates into persistent economic hardships, often lasting beyond a generation. For the same reasons, we knew that any solution to ‘unscientific’ faecal management was sure to have favorable impact on rural economy as well its social structure.
Since the sewage network was limited, Sulabh’s two-pit pour-flush toilet emerged as the most sustainable and cost-effective mechanism. It was affordable, easy to build and turned fecal sludge into manure, thus transforming the spring of contamination and disease into a source of soil replenishments. The fact that maximum number of toilets built during the SBM used Sulabh technology is a testimony to our effectiveness.
SBM: Mainstreaming the Sanitation Debate
It is important to understand that problems of sanitation and hygiene are not limited to insalubrious practices such as spitting, littering, urinating in public places or open defecation. They entail habits of both the body and the mind. My own experience with the Sulabh project (est. March 1970) suggests that such a wholistic transformation would require three ingredients—a sustained debate on the issues, a strong policy intervention, and an astute political leadership.
Throughout his active years, Mahatma Gandhi propelled all three, quite untiringly, often leading by example. However, in years following 1948, even through rural sanitation was included in the very first Five Year Programme (1954), country witnessed a prolonged period of lull on this front. While we made giant strides in the field of science and technology and took decisive steps towards eradication of untouchability, the state of sanitation remain largely neglected. Fortunately, the situation was remedied in 2014 when PM Modi, speaking for the very first time from the rampart of the Red Fort, declared his government’s commitment to the two objectives “closest to Mahatma’s heart,” namely cleanliness and sanitation. This was followed by a formal launch of the SBM on 2 October 2014.
PM’s candid observations on the state of cleanliness in India, even through it ruffled a few feathers among those who considered the subject too ‘quotidian’ for the PM’s office, revitalised the public discourse on cleanliness. It was the clearest indication that the after a gap of nearly six decades, the subject of sanitation would be mainstreamed, occupying the highest priority in the republic. The movement created a sensation of sorts, rendering this hitherto invisible subject suddenly ubiquitous.
SBM 2 and Beyond
To capitalise on any progressive public discourse, it is imperative that a suitable infrastructure be created. I have no hesitation admitting that the present government has walked the talk. Even though sanitation is a state subject, the center has provided both financial and technical assistance to the states. This includes an incentive of Rs.12,000 for the construction of household latrine and grants for Community Sanitary Complexes (CSCs). Since hygiene is a behavioural issue, capacity building exercises as well as multi-channel Information, Education and Communication (IEC) initiatives have been launched to create mass awareness. My own experience of the Sulabh School Sanitation Clubs suggests the impact of IEC programs are both effective and lasting .
PM Modi’s community-driven approach has yielded rich dividends. Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, more than 10 crore latrines were built, leading to rural India being declared open defecation free on Oct 2, 2019. SBM 2, launched in 2020, is seeking sustainability in ODF villages by promoting bio-gas under the GOBARdhan scheme. It has also diversified its objectives to include solid and liquid waste management (SLWM), thus aiming for garbage-free cities. It is truly satisfying to note that an ODF status or a city’s rank in the annual Swachh Sarvekshan (launched in 2017) now carries immense social premium. Moreover, such ranks are seen as a direct reflection of the state of governance. Gandhi once observed that until we “rid ourselves of our dirty habits and have improved latrines, swaraj can have no value for us.” With the SBM, this insistence on the fundamental inseparability of cleanliness from Swaraj seems to have inched closer to actualisation. n