The Swachh Bharat Mission is a high-profile national programme enjoying extraordinary political and budgetary support. With its subsidy-based mass toilet-building programme, it has put up millions of individual house latrines in rural areas: a government-commissioned survey estimates that the coverage now extends to 62.45% of households, up from 39% in 2014. Among these households, nearly 92% of people who have access actually use the toilets. Big gaps exist, but these are encouraging trends, given the many positive outcomes that sanitation produces. The most important of these is reduced stress for women, who suffer silently in its absence. There are well-known gains to public health as well. Success can be measured, however, only through a rigorous assessment of how the new facilities fare over time. There is data from undivided Andhra Pradesh to show that household latrines built before the current Swachh programme lapsed into disuse because many rural households did not have a water source. The newer ones may meet the same fate without access to water. Also, Dalit houses tend to have lower coverage, hinting at structural difficulties in accessing schemes. Rural housing also needs stronger policy support, without which it cannot wipe out the deficit of about 60 million units that are needed to plan for universal toilet access.
In the Centre’s assessment, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana have particularly failed to upgrade rural sanitation, while Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Gujarat have exceeded the goals. Given the substantial funding available from the Centre, State governments cannot have a convincing reason for a poor record. The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which has introduced a new district-level ranking, should persuade the more backward States to bring about infrastructure improvements. Yet, total Swachh will remain elusive, because even urban India has no comprehensive waste management plan, leave alone the less affluent rural areas. Nearly 60% of sewage generated in the cities currently flows untreated into rivers, waterways, lakes and the sea. The rules on segregation of waste remain on paper even in the bigger cities. It is now left to environmentally conscious citizens to adopt green practices, compost and sort their waste. The big metros generate a few thousand tonnes of garbage every day, and city managers focus their energies on transporting refuse to landfills. Many Indians do not see the waste they generate as their problem, and consider it to be someone else’s responsibility. Mahatma Gandhi saw in this attitude the pernicious roots of societal divisions, and campaigned against it. Achieving his vision for a clean nation will take more than symbolism — it needs clear policies and investments in the right systems.