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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission needs a complete overhaul. Here’s why

By Kingshuk Nag
New Update

publive-image An image of a toilet built under the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission | Pic courtesy: The Probe

A few months after taking over as the Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi began focusing on his pet mission - the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), a national campaign to eliminate open defecation and improve the solid waste management situation in the country.

The mission aimed to achieve an “open defecation free India” by October 2, 2019 - the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. But the deadline set by the government is long past, and India’s sanitation status is still deplorable.

Under the government’s mission, by 2019, all villages, gram panchayats and cities had to declare themselves as “open defecation free”. Though this was an ambitious target set by the government, even critics welcomed the move as it was a step in the right direction. The disheartening fact is that not only did the government not meet its challenging target, but today, the SBM is replete with corruption and favouritism – not even the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat is spared.

In Gujarat, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) earlier this month, the High Court pointed out a scam in the construction of toilets in the Banaskantha district of north Gujarat. The court had ordered that as a preliminary move, the state government should examine the irregularities in the implementation of the scheme by May 4 and report back to it. The report will be prepared by the commissioner of the Gujarat government’s rural development ministry. But this is not the first time the Gujarat government has faced flak for its sanitation mission.

Earlier, in a similar case from Okha municipality in Gujarat’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district, the former chief of the municipality and 19 others were prosecuted for misappropriation of Rs 2.25 crore meant to build toilets. The toilets were supposed to be built by NGOs, but instead of 6752 toilets, they readied only 3354 public convenience outlets. The Okha municipality chief was booked for forgery, criminal breach of trust and criminal conspiracy under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

In another case in Surat district in Gujarat, there were allegations that old toilets have been shown as recently constructed in the name of providing sanitation under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission in every household. Further, some were constructed at places adjacent to existing toilets at residential complexes.

publive-image The Prime Minister launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission on October 2, 2014 | Pic courtesy: narendramodi.in

Beyond Gujarat, the situation is no different in several BJP and non-BJP ruled states. For instance, in Madhya Pradesh, a whopping 540 crore scam was unearthed, wherein toilets that were supposed to be constructed between 2012 and 2018 existed only on paper. It was found that over 4.5 lakh toilets existed only on paper, and they were nowhere to be found on the ground.

In another scam in Madhya Pradesh, thousands of toilets were built without a door. Since the doors were supposed to be built with iron, the iron was found to have been pilfered. In MP, under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission, several discrepancies were found during the project implementation. In some places, toilets were not constructed. In some other areas during the inspection, it was found that the authorities had resorted to “double counting”. It was unearthed that the iron doors of toilets were built 10 kg lighter in many places. In other instances, it was found that the photos of toilets were shot and sought to be authenticated by the pictures of the beneficiaries standing outside the toilets. But it was later reported that many of these people did not even know why they were being photographed. Incidentally, as per official statistics, many toilets were GPS tagged, but this too was missing on the ground. These scams have caused a massive embarrassment to the MP government, which has now declared that the shortfalls will be audited and the guilty will be prosecuted.

In a similar scam in Bihar, the state government officials, along with some NGOs and bank officials, had colluded with each other, and Rs 15 crores were pilfered in the scam that took place between 2016 and 2017. Both in Bihar and Rajasthan, such scams came to light after insiders within these government bodies who were upset by the wrongdoings helped uncover cases through their exertions.

In Bihar, the poor design and implementation of the SBM came to the fore after it was found that nearly 7.85 million toilets that were constructed in the flood-prone zones of Northern Bihar were unusable during the floods. Many toilets were constructed in areas that were inaccessible, and many of them got swamped with water because of poor planning during their construction.

In Odisha, too, there have been similar instances of widespread corruption related to the way the local bodies and state administration have handled the mission. In Maharashtra, a blame game ensued between the Shiv Sena and the BJP after SBM-related scams came to light. Both the Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Rout and BJP MLA Kirit Somaiyya were seen trading charges against each other and passing the buck.

publive-image Toilets placed amidst garbage piles in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh | Photo courtesy: The Probe

The Probe had earlier reported on a story related to Ghaziabad women defecating in the open as they had no access to public toilets. The women had also narrated their ordeal about how they had to walk for several kilometres to use a public convenience and had to grease the palms of people manning the public amenities. Many of the public toilets in Ghaziabad were found placed amidst garbage piles, and some places had reported instances wherein people were forced to pay to use free public convenience outlets.

The problem plaguing a novel mission like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is that there is no accountability or transparency related to the project implementation or fund allocation and its utilisation. One of the major issues confronted at the local level was that even the properly constructed toilets have no running water facilities, rendering it useless.

The Swachchata Abhiyan is believed to be one of the world’s largest sanitation programs, yet its poor implementation and widespread corruption have made the mission unsustainable. Though studies have indicated that the Swachh Bharat Mission has been able to bring down the rate of open defecation in the country, the project still needs a complete revamp.

The underutilisation and mis-utilisation of funds have been a major cause for concern related to the funding of the mission. There have been numerous reports about how funds that were meant for solid waste management were diverted toward the construction of toilets. In many parts of rural India where toilets have been constructed, the project has still not yielded the desired results as enough funds have not been allocated towards awareness initiatives.

Today, Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has been limited to a political slogan alone. No doubt, the mission is an outstanding step towards achieving nationwide sanitation coverage. As the mission moves towards Phase 2, which will focus on the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) that is aimed at reinforcing open defecation free behaviours and interventions related to the safe management of solid and liquid waste in villages, the government must put the brakes on the project and focus on a complete overhaul of the mission.


Kingshuk Nag is a senior journalist who spent about 25 years reporting for The Times of India across various locations. He is also the author of around ten best-selling works on politics and business. In a career spanning over four decades, Nag has reported on politics and the economy. He is a recipient of the Prem Bhatia award.