Numbers game: On the Swachh Survekshan awards

Factors that hinder general improvement in sanitation must be overcome 

January 13, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 09:20 am IST

For the eighth year running, the Centre has announced the Swachh Survekshan Awards, its annual exercise of awarding cities, towns and States which have performed impressively on various parameters of public sanitation. In an exercise that has now become predictable, the city of Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, has been adjudged India’s cleanest city for the seventh year in a row. The only change is that this year, it has to share honours with Surat, Gujarat. Last year, Surat came second, which is not surprising as it usually occupied the higher echelons of the ranking ladder in earlier editions. Bhopal, Indore, Surat and Visakhapatnam have entrenched themselves over the years. There is a certain volatility beyond the top 10 — Ahmedabad, Chandigarh and Gwalior, for instance, are volatile cities — but the top cities are consistent. All of this is suggestive of a degree of stagnation.

Another quirk of the survey is that it creates multiple sub-categories, so that many more cities have a chance at top-scoring in some category or the other. Thus, while it is meaningful to create sub-categories based on population, some classifications stretch credulity. Mhow in Madhya Pradesh has been awarded as the cleanest ‘cantonment’ town. Varanasi and Prayagraj are proud winners of the ‘Cleanest Ganga town’ and Chandigarh is the cleanest ‘Best Safaimitra Surakshit Sheher’ (Cities safest for sanitation workers). Other than obvious criticisms of parochialism — why for instance cannot there be the cleanest Cauvery or Narmada town? — it ends up focusing too much attention on the top. The underlying principle of several ranking schemes put in place by the Centre is to ‘motivate’ sections — cities, villages, schools — to pull themselves up on their own mettle. While this works well for sporting contests, public sanitation is not something that is the result of a town or city actively choosing to be lazy or industrious in improving themselves. It is heavily influenced by their history, economic conditions and proximity to power. That a few cities are perpetually at the top means that there is less attention paid to the factors that hinder a general improvement in sanitation. One way to make future editions of the survey work as a useful barometer of progress is to acknowledge that consistent toppers have already put in place a well-oiled system and having done so, retire them from future rankings for a few years. This will throw focus and highlight challenges that stymie other cities. For civic sanitation to remain a sustainable movement, it is high time that the government intervenes and prevents it from being a numbers game.

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