Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Thorn in India’s Environmental Side: Open Defecation and a Review of Swachh Bharat

Happy World Environment Day from all of us here at HEEALS! In honour of this important day, this blog post will reflect on India as this year’s global host for World Environment Day, with specific focus on The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation’s “Swachh Bharat Mission”, and it’s goal of making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2019.

India is the open defecation capital of the world, with just under half of the population - 564 million people - unable or unwilling to use a toilet.[1] Beyond the obvious and devastating impacts that this has on Indian health, open defecation is a serious environmental concern for several reasons. Human waste introduces toxins and bacteria into the ecosystem that cannot be broken down in a sustainable time, relative to the amount that they are released. This buildup of microbes harms aquatic systems and the life that occupy them. Open defecation also contributes to eutrophication, preventing light diffusion and oxygen from reaching life underwater. Above the surface, even the smell of human waste in excess pollutes the surrounding air.[2] One often hears of open defecation from the perspective of it's health impacts, and for good reason; However, regarding open defecation from an environmental lens provides a more nuanced and complex perspective to the issue.

On October 2nd, 2014, the Prime Minister of India launched the “Swachh Bharat Mission” with the objective of facilitating a clean and ODF country over a five-year time span. The strategy for implementing this massive task includes augmenting the institutional capacity of districts to allow for behaviour change activities at the grassroots level. The program also intended on providing more flexibility to states, so as to incentivize local communities based on individual context and maximize coverage.[3] The mission places priority on facilitating behaviour change, as many rural communities are unaware of the health and environmental impacts of open defecation, and therefore see it as more convenient than using a toilet.

So, with just over a year left until the projected “ODF India”, let’s explore how the project has performed; The Swachh Bharat website suggests the facilitation of 17 ODF states since 2014, with a grand total of 73,680,690 household toilets built since October 2014.[4] The mission has reached 62.48% of its goal, and while nowhere near the projected 100% ODF, one must commend the mission on having made it this far. With a population size like India’s, making any claim for completeness - especially regarding something as ingrained in society as open defecation - is quite unlikely to be achieved. Nonetheless, 62.48% is quite significant. The five districts with the highest ODF coverage are ordered as follows: A & N Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigard, Chattisgarh, and D & N Haveli.

Now for the projects downfalls. For a project that claimed to give more autonomy to individual states, there is a significant gap in the project implementation that leaves Low-Income States (LIS) behind. The four listed LIS - Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh - lack the same progress as their neighbouring states in terms of ODF districts. For example, of the 33 districts in Assam, only 11 were declared ODF, and the verification information is not listed on the website. In Uttar Pradesh, only 7 out of 75 states were declared ODF, and of those 7, only 2 were actually verified ODF.[5] This is in comparison to states such as Haryana, Gujarat and Chattisgarh, where 100% of districts were both declared and verified as being ODF.

While it makes sense to contextualize local realities by regulating Swachh Bharat at a state level, it does not help to ignore state capacity in the process- without aiding Low-Income States reach the same level of progress as those more capable, Swachh Bharat becomes less of a national mission, and more of a fragmented mission open to states who are able to implement it properly.

This World Environment Day, let us reflect on our own individual capacities to do better for our world, and take these capacities into account in our advocacy work. Let us raise each other up in the process of creating a better and more sustainable planet. Happy World Environment Day!

WASH and Menstrual Hygiene Intern Coordinator


[1] http://www.teamswachhbharat.in/get-the-facts.php
[2] https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/how-open-defecation-affect-human-health-environment-and-solutions.php
[3] http://swachhbharatmission.gov.in/sbmcms/index.htm
[4] http://swachhbharatmission.gov.in/sbmcms/index.htm
[5] https://sbm.gov.in/sbmReport/Report/Physical/SBM_VillageODFMarkStatus.aspx

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