Thursday, December 18, 2014

Swachh Bharat and Sanitation / Agnikalam

Nirmal remained unattained. Now we want to graduate to swachh, also a laudable objective if its broad contours are to be imagined. To begin let me ask rather obviously, was there any centrally sponsored nirmal scheme that went to local - as opposed to state - governments, which central ministries were responsible, has there been any of programmes undertaken under nirmal, and have states been pursued regarding their promise to set up state finance commissions to ensure constitutionally guaranteed financing of municipal and panchayat programmes? Or is to turn out to be another unfulfilled wish?

It is one thing to expect the middle class not to litter Indian streets. But the depth of the problem lies elsewhere. Unless all Indians are assured a basic right in relieving themselves decently and in privacy, that is, have access to at least septic tank or slab/open pit, leave alone modern latrines, how could they be expected to throw their garbage in bins, presuming, of course, that adequate number of bins are provided?
Coming to brass tacks, let us examine relevant figures. Based on Census 2011, table 1 reveals that about one-fifth of urban and more than two-thirds of rural households do not have in-house facilities; most of them use open fields. Table 2 lists the top 10 states' shares of night soil removal by humans, one of the most degrading human occupations. Unsurprisingly, by far the highest occurrence is in Uttar Pradesh, though surprisingly dismal performance persist also in rural West Bengal and urban Tamil Nadu. Rural conditions of Jammu and Kashmir are also poor, noteworthy in light of pre-election promises being made to Kashmiris on development.

Using should not be terribly erroneous in light of little improvement over time. A 2014 World Health Organization-Unicef cross-country comparison in table 3 lists the top 10 countries that have achieved the highest reduction in open defecation since 1990 as a percentage of population. In the sub-continent, it shows a rapid decline in open defecation in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Reflecting the numbers on the use of open fields in table 1, it is not surprising that India does not feature in table 3 at all, while Sri Lanka does not feature for the opposite reason that there is likely to be little open defecation there. Also to be observed are that Ethiopia's reduction is most striking, while Bangladesh, Peru and Vietnam have rapidly reduced their incidence to single digits.

In table 4, the same source reveals that India's inclusion significantly worsens southern Asia's performance between 1990-2012 or 2000-12. Clearly, India has been, and continues to be, an outlier by far. As one indicator, 12 per cent of rural plus urban southern Asia other than India uses open defecation. But since in India it is 48 per cent, southern Asia's number jumps to 38 per cent once India is included in it! Indeed, globally, India represents almost 60 per cent of open defecation.

Thus, the statistics for India on sanitation, in the above discussion on latrines in particular, are no less than shocking. Should any policymaker expect from those who suffer such ignominy through life? The answer is decidedly in the negative, and even less so from those who hand carry excreta through urban and village streets, not unusually the subject of mockery for being of a low caste. These very fundamental challenges have to be addressed through rational allocation of financial resources to the appropriate level of government, ex ante and ex post impact assessment (IA) and tight monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of an intelligently designed Swachh Bharat programme.

Implementation of the programme has to be followed by wide induction in awareness of the dignity of labour and social equity more broadly. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi iterated, "Karo pahale, kaho pichhe", he actually cleaned out night soil of the Bihar Harijan, or so my generation was taught in junior school. In that light, by the time the joy of middle to high school came to be experienced, tasks following Gandhi's example were meted out to us to be applied in urban slums. Rhetorically, how many children are going through a culture of this kind of activity today?

In sum, Swachh Bharat is a correct policy revival but will fail unless buttressed by a robust, palpable implementation structure. The prime minister has to show his mettle by revealing his plan to make India clean and smart. Luckily, there exists a handful of municipalities from where one could derive inspiration. One such is the 2013-14 Budget of Berhampur Municipal Corporation in Ganjam district of Odisha that details its Budget allocation in garbage collection, solid waste management, drainage, public toilet, water supply, housing, roads and bridges, street lighting, parks, livelihood, infrastructure and project assistance. It elaborates that it wants mandatory public disclosure of documents and allocation, to ensure citizen participation - common in developed societies - increase allocation for the urban poor, and for basic services including water, garbage, drainage and public toilets, and implement a development outcome budget to ensure effective government management and accountability. It is rejuvenating for it sets an example for other local governments to follow. Central government bureaucrats should pick up such examples consistently and give concrete shape to the prime minister's vision though the leadership in this endeavour has to continue to be his.

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