Insights into Editorial: Swachh Bharat Mission: another futile toilet chase?

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Insights into Editorial: Swachh Bharat Mission: another futile toilet chase?





October 2, 2016 marked the second anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The programme aims to eliminate open defecation by 2019. The goal also includes the elimination of open defecation, conversion of insanitary toilets to pour flush toilets, eradicating of manual scavenging and Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM).Swachh Bharat Mission

  • Poor sanitation spreads infectious diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of children each year, and stunt the physical and cognitive development of those who survive. Announcing a goal of accelerating the reduction in open defecation was a great idea, articulating a worthy goal for serious public policy efforts.



The Swachh Bharat Mission was launched two years ago on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The mission was divided into two parts — urban and rural. The Swachh Bharat Mission Urban is managed by the Ministry of Urban Development, while the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (Rural) is led by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.


Brief history:

With effect from April 1, 1999, the Government of India restructured the Comprehensive Rural Sanitation Programme and launched the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC).

  • To give a fillip to the TSC, effective June 2003, the government launched an incentive scheme in the form of an award for total sanitation coverage, maintenance of a clean environment and open defecation-free panchayat villages, blocks and districts, called Nirmal Gram Puraskar.
  • Effective April 1, 2012, the TSC was renamed to Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). On October 2, 2014 the campaign was relaunched as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.


Major components of the goal:

  • Construction of individual sanitary latrines for households below the poverty line with subsidy (80%) where demand exists.
  • Conversion of dry latrines into low-cost sanitary latrines.
  • Construction of exclusive village sanitary complexes for women providing facilities for hand pumping, bathing, sanitation and washing on a selective basis where there is not adequate land or space within houses and where village panchayats are willing to maintain the facilities.
  • Setting up of sanitary marts.
  • Total sanitation of villages through the construction of drains, soakage pits, solid and liquid waste disposal.
  • Intensive campaign for awareness generation and health education to create a felt need for personal, household and environmental sanitation facilities.


Performance of the scheme:

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has recently released a press note on the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin in the last two years. According to the release, 2.4 crore toilets have been constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission and 15.04 lakh under MNREGA across rural India. The rural household toilet coverage has increased from 42% at the start of Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin to 55.34%.

  • In the first year of the Swachh Bharat Mission, an increase of 446% in construction of toilets was observed, as compared to the pre-SBM period of 2014-15. 35 districts and about one lakh villages are targeted to be declared open defecation free.
  • Over Rs 18,000 crore have been spent under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) since its launch in October, 2014. The Swachh Bharat Kosh-which seeks to attract the participation of the private sector-has reportedly received Rs 400 crore to aid this national goal.


What’s missing?

  • The programme does not target on fixing the existing missing links. For instance, safe disposal of human waste in urban India is worse than in rural India. Be it sewage treatment or management of faecal sludge from stand alone toilets, the required infrastructure either does not exist or if created, has seldom delivered.
  • The policy and approach behind it ignores a fundamental pre-requisite to ensure sustainable results through Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). SBM seeks to simply adopt tools without bothering to provide an environment which enables CLTS to succeed. This conveys that toilets are being sought, not the collective behavior change essential to secure sanitation as a public good.
  • The real focus of the implementation is on showing toilets and the expenditure to be reported on toilet-based subsidies. As a result, usage on community scale becomes its immediate casualty.
  • The current verification system which seeks the uploading of toilet photos (for beneficiary payments to be reimbursed) reinforces this focus on toilets instead of behavior change. So the presence of toilets becomes the measurable proxy for sanitation, which the Centre uses to disburse funds and states find easiest to deliver.
  • Most of the money is going towards latrine construction, and very little towards information, education, and communication (IEC), the headline for behaviour-change activities. The fraction of spending on IEC has actually fallen since the SBM started, from 3% of total expenditure in 2014-2015 to 1% in 2015-2016. This is troublesome given the reasons open defecation persists in rural India.
  • What’s equally distressing is that even though the goal of the SBM is to eliminate open defecation and programme guidelines call for a latrine use survey, there is still no plan to collect such data.
  • Not only is the SBM viewed as the Centre’s programme, even the mantle for its implementation has been donned by the concerned central Ministry. It is setting its sights on district level achievement and engaging with district administrators directly. States end up feeling little responsibility for delivering outcomes and are accountable only for doing what the Centre asks them to.
  • Direct central involvement with the districts means that it loses the ability to critically examine ODF declarations. It becomes an actor responsible for the result and not a judge of the outcome. This can end up putting a question mark on the sustainability of the achievements that will be rewarded through the World Bank loan.


What needs to be done?

  • The clear message from past experience (both in India and abroad) is to avoid toilet subsidies since they detract from behavior change. But in our subsidy imbued political economy, the legacy of toilet subsidies is not only seen as necessary but that which should be enhanced every few years. Explicit withdrawal of such a subsidy would immediately invite an anti-poor label for the government.
  • The ideal solution is to leave sanitation to the states and local bodies and not have a central programme at all. After the increase in untied devolution following the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, states have enough funds to spend on any function they prioritise. However, this would run counter to a situation in which the Centre needs to show that it is driving the sanitation agenda.
  • The next best option is a Central programme which does two things. First, the Centre should not prescribe how toilet funds are spent and let states choose their own approach. Second, it should focus on outcomes and thus, reward states which perform better. This will incentivise them to adopt policies that deliver better sanitation and not just toilets which become derelict or at best are partially used.
  • The Centre must facilitate more the exercise of choice by states, examine the ODF district claims critically and disseminate information to them. Annual surveys which reward genuine performance and not a mere toilet chase will also help.



Lack of proper sanitation leads to a less healthy and less productive population, leading to economic loss. A World Bank study estimates that the resulting loss to the Indian economy is 6.4% of the GDP because of poor sanitation. Announcing a goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019 was a great idea, but now that we are 40% through India’s flagship sanitation campaign, it is a good time to assess how much progress the SBM has made.