The reality of the Swachh Bharat Mission

A scheme fully owned by the state has become a toolkit for privatisation of public health services and continues caste discrimination

April 25, 2024 02:19 am | Updated 09:47 am IST

The Swachh Bharat Mission tried to create a narrative that sanitation is everyone’s job. Instead, it has ended up continuing the same old caste practices. File

The Swachh Bharat Mission tried to create a narrative that sanitation is everyone’s job. Instead, it has ended up continuing the same old caste practices. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

India was ranked right at the bottom of 180 countries in the Environment Performance Index (EPI) in 2022. The EPI ranks countries on climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. It measures 40 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, such as air quality, and drinking water and sanitation. The government responded to the rank saying the methodology is faulty and does not quantify the Indian scenario objectively.

For 10 years, the Modi government has embarked on much-hyped campaigns of development. These included the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and the National Clean Air Programme.

Is the EPI linked to these missions? It should be, because these missions aim to enable better living standards. The SBM is meant to address the issue of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Health). Likewise, the SCM is supposed to deliver on the clean energy requirements of towns. However, what we have seen is an increase in the vulnerability of the population owing to air and water pollution, among others.

The Swachh Bharat Mission

So, what went wrong? Let us take the example of the SBM and SBM 2.0, which was launched in 2021 and which aims to make all cities free of garbage. Sanitation and waste management in India are associated with the wide prevalence of caste. Historically, the subjugated castes have been forced to carry out sanitation work. The SBM tried to create a narrative that sanitation is everyone’s job. Instead, it has ended up continuing the same old caste practices.

The SBM is a politically successful project; no Opposition party or community has raised objections to it. While the entire project is governed and monitored by state agencies, the design makes it clear that large capital-intensive technologies are promoted.

The Union government claims that India is open defecation-free, but the reality is different. A Comptroller and Auditor General report in 2020 raised many questions about the government’s claims over the success of the SBM on this front. It indicated the poor quality of construction of toilets under this scheme. A few urbanisation studies pointed out that in some metros, communities in slums still do not have access to public toilets. Even in rural India, toilet construction has not been linked to waste treatment. In peri-urban areas, the faecal sludge generated is tossed into the environment. Septic tanks are cleaned by manual scavengers and the sludge is thrown into various water systems.

One thing the government intended to do via SBM was to reduce the involvement of people in waste management by replacing them with large, capital-intensive technologies. However, these installations have refused to live up to their promoters’ promises, leaving town after town screaming for resources to fix them and, importantly, respond to the health crises emerging from badly managed waste (if at all) as well as the rates and forms of urbanisation local governments believed these technologies would support. In this scenario, the governments outsourced most of the work to private players, who employed the same subjugated communities to handle waste.

Take, for example, solid and liquid waste management in cities. In most towns, the Union government is employing technological solutions in handling solid waste. Some of these solutions are in the form of waste-to-energy plants and biological methanation. But there are barely any success stories in either case.

City governments are being asked to buy more machines including road sweeping machines that cost no less than ₹1 crore, more vehicles to transport the waste from one corner to another with geo-tagging, and so on. Funds are made available to the city governments for such plans. However, all this work is being handed over to large contractors entering the city domains for making sanitation a profit entity. Most of the workers employed by these contractors are Dalits. Hence, a scheme fully owned by the state has become a toolkit for the privatisation of public health services and continues caste discrimination.

On March 30, 2024, in the Himachal Pradesh High Court, the Urban Development Department said that there are just five sanitation inspectors in the Shimla Municipal Corporation, which comprises 34 wards. Instead of recruiting more such inspectors, this cadre is being declared dead after they retire. In a State where there are more than 50 municipal bodies, there are only 20 sanitation inspectors, which means that there are some municipalities that have no sanitation inspectors.

There are similar problems with other programmes too. Such failures have been dragging down India’s EPI performance.

Development model

The EPI may be quite comprehensive. However, one of its features of mapping exposes the unsustainability of our development processes. This means that or development models must be altered. The EPI must also be seen in the background of a recent judgment where the Supreme Court observed the links between climate change and basic human rights. Climate scientists have said that the reasons for the current problems are anthropogenic and systemic in nature.

We will have to link policies to human rights in order to tackle these issues.

Tikender Singh Panwar is a former directly elected Deputy Mayor of Shimla and an urban practitioner

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