Mumbai: The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2, 2014, to change the behaviour towards usage of toilets, and ensuring ‘Clean India’ or Swachh Bharat, including a nationwide open-defecation free (ODF) status by the same date in 2019.

SBM-Gramin--the government’s flagship rural sanitation programme--is presently the largest programme of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, accounting for 69% of its total budget, up from nearly 24% in 2014-15, according to a 2018 budget brief by Accountability Initiative.

Parameswaran Iyer, 59, secretary, ministry of drinking water and sanitation, who is leading SBM is confident of achieving 100% ODF status by 2019.

A former Indian Administrative Service officer, Iyer took voluntary retirement a decade ago to work at the World Bank on water and sanitation projects. He was appointed to lead the sanitation programme in February 2016.

Recently, in May 2018, Iyer and Rajeev Mehrishi, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), emptied a twin-pit toilet “to encourage use of twin pit toilets in rural India, and de-stigmatise emptying of toilet pits by the household themselves”.

With a year to achieve complete toilet coverage and ODF status, Iyer believes that states have made “impressive progress”. In an email interview with IndiaSpend, Iyer talked about the process of verification of the status of villages as more and more of them get declared ODF, reasons for the government’s backing for twin-pit toilets and their cleaning, and need to ensure solid and liquid waste management across the country.

You have been leading SBM since 2016. How do you assess the scheme's performance since it started in 2014 when only 39% of Indian households had toilets? Are you on course to achieve ODF status for the country by October 2019, as per the government's target? Only 82% of India's 427,123 villages have been verified as ODF, as per government data (as on August 29, 2018).

The SBM has made significant progress under the leadership of the Prime Minister and has already led to 400 million people using toilets and stopping the practice of open defecation. Independent surveys have confirmed that more than 90% people with access to sanitation use them.

We are very much on track to achieve Swachh Bharat (Clean India) by the stipulated date (October 2, 2019). States have shown good momentum and have registered impressive progress. With over 450,000 ODF villages, 450 ODF districts, and 20 ODF states and union territories, 84 million toilets have been constructed under the SBM, and India is well on track to achieve ODF status earlier than the proposed deadline.

Verification of all ODF-declared villages is very unique to SBM. No previous programmes had such evolved system of verifying results and outcomes. Even the declaration of an ODF village is a democratic process. Once every household in the village has resolved to end the practice of open defecation and have constructed the necessary infrastructure for the same, a resolution is passed in the gram sabha [members of a village or cluster of villages on the electoral rolls] to declare the village ODF. To keep track of the declaration, verification is carried out for the village by the state governments within 90 days of the declaration. At this stage, verification is done for each household in the village.

With the gaining momentum of SBM, more and more villages are being declared ODF every day. Given the pace of declaration and the 90-day window to verify the village, there will structurally be about 15% villages not verified at a given point of time. With verification at 82%, the remaining ODF villages are on track to be verified within their 90-day stipulated period.

There are concerns about the efficacy of pit latrines and their cleaning once full. How much of this is due to insufficient information, education and communication (IEC)? Programme guidelines recommend that 8% of SBM-G and 12% of SBM-U expenditure be earmarked for IEC but this target has never been met.

Let me clarify that the twin-pit toilet is the safest and most effective toilet technology suited to large parts of rural India, and is even recommended by the World Health Organization as well as the government of India. The programme has seen huge uptake of toilet technology by people in rural areas.

Around 90% of all toilets built last year were twin-pit toilets. Usually, a pit in a standard twin-pit toilet model fills up in roughly five years for a six-member family. Twin pits have a junction chamber which allows shifting between the twin pits. Once a pit is full, using the junction chamber, the waste can then be easily redirected to the second pit, and it becomes safe-to-handle compost in a year, and is rich in NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) nutrients which makes it ideal for use in agriculture. In many parts of India, this is also known as sonakhaad (golden fertiliser) because of high quality organic content.

Further, through IEC, the ministry [ministry of drinking water and sanitation] is working to spread awareness of the use of the twin-pit toilet technology. Massive media campaigns have been rolled out such as Darwaza Band [behaviour change campaign in men who have toilets but are not using them] with a focus on the use of toilets, and the recent twin-pit promotional campaign being led by actors Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar.

Pit cleaning has been further supported by multiple prominent figures such as Akshay Kumar, and more recently the CAG who volunteered to clean pits as a step towards dispelling myths, biases and stigmas.

IEC is a critical component to the SBM, and is integrated into most of the programme pillars. Of the total budget for SBM, 8% has been allocated for IEC: 3% is at the Centre with the ministry which is almost always spent while 5% is with state governments. Many states are spending the stipulated amounts. To further incentivise and ensure good use of the IEC budgets, reaching IEC targets is also a precondition for SBM funding through the year.

Nearly 82% of manual scavengers are in Uttar Pradesh (of the 13 states listed). Despite 92% toilet coverage in the state, manual scavenging continues. Casteism is a major hurdle for the success of SBM, and in the future cleaning of pits may become the burden of Dalit communities, perpetuating this caste-based evil. What are your views?

Manual scavenging is prohibited by law. You may like to refer these matters to the ministry of social justice and empowerment, given the issue is dealt with by them.

As far as SBM is concerned, the mission has successfully converted all identified insanitary toilets. This has been possible due to the massive jan andolan [people’s movement], the SBM, which brings together all, irrespective of caste, gender, religion or age. The essence of SBM is that it is a people's movement, and everyone of us is involved in realising its objectives.

Even for the future cleaning of pits, it is still "everyone's business". The central government promotes technology that completely removes the direct engagement of a human being with human waste. The compost created by the twin-pit technology is 100% safe and the pits may be emptied by anyone and everyone. Believe me, I myself have emptied a few.

In regions where toilet and pit construction is not robust or has violated design norms, the possibility of groundwater contamination is high. Considering the groundwater-sanitation connect, how are you going to proceed?

Environmental management upgradation is central to SBM. Our IEC interventions and training include information and awareness of the linkages between location of toilets and possible risks of groundwater contamination. There is very little evidence that sanitation interventions have caused groundwater contamination in recent years.

The SBM maintains focus on quality and sustainability as prime programme pillars. The use and construction of safe toilet technology that adheres to the technology guidelines is critical. These guidelines include the depth of the pits in twin-pit toilet technology, its diameter, the angle at the which the pipes are to be connected to the pits, and even the distance from the water source. For example, it has been clearly communicated that all twin-pits should be at a safe distance from the water source and raised leach pit structure guidelines for depressions and water-logged areas. Additionally, states organise a range of mason training workshops to ensure clarity in constructing safe toilets.

The ministry of sanitation and state governments organise village visits to check the quality of infrastructure on the ground and identify faulty technology toilets in order to fix them. In cases of dysfunctional toilets or those not adhering to the design norms, the households are identified and encouraged to convert their dysfunctional toilets to functional.

The SBM has already demonstrated significant health and economic impacts at the grassroots as a direct result of the adoption of safe sanitation practices and infrastructure. In 2017, United Nations Children's Fund estimated that a household in an ODF village in rural India saves approximately Rs 50,000 every year. Meanwhile, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released a study [in 2017] that shows significant improvements in diarrhoea prevalence and stunting among children in ODF villages, compared to otherwise similar non-ODF villages.

Floods pose a challenge to infrastructure in some of the flood-prone areas. For example, the recent floods in Kerala have impacted infrastructure and homes where sanitation is a cause for concern, especially where septic tanks and sewage systems have been inundated. Is the ministry extending special packages or schemes to maintain the state's open defecation-free status? What concerns do you have for other flood-prone areas?

What is happening in Kerala is a natural calamity with great repercussions for all belonging to the flood-affected areas. As an ODF state, Kerala has always been at the forefront of comparatively safer sanitation practices, specially solid and liquid waste management. With the recent flood, infrastructure may have been damaged. As Kerala reconstructs itself, we are confident that the people's attitudes towards safe hygiene will prevail and Kerala will remain ODF.

As discussed earlier, the twin-pit toilet system is the preferred toilet technology even in flood-prone areas. However, certain modifications can be made depending on the geographical area in order to ensure groundwater sanitation through distance from the water table and water source.

The "poor execution of works and weak contract management resulted in works remaining incomplete, abandoned or non-operational as well as unproductive expenditure on equipment with a financial implication of Rs 2,212.44 crore" and there is "no mechanism for ensuring authentication and validation of data entered in Integrated Management Information System", noted the CAG's report (tabled on August 7, 2018) on the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). What is the implication of the failure to meet the objectives of the scheme, including on SBM, and what steps are you taking to resolve the issues?

Under the NRDWP, over 54% habitations in the country have access to piped water supply. Recently, the NRDWP has been restructured towards improving efficiency. The NRDWP reforms have moved the programme towards effective implementation, stronger monitoring mechanism, and competitive and challenge mode funding [providing financial contributions to achieve social outcomes to be delivered by the private sector].

The focus has moved to community-driven and single village schemes, much like the Swajal model [demand-driven and community-centred programme to provide sustainable access to drinking water in rural areas]. The Swajal model is a sustainable solution for rural drinking water challenges as well as for the availability of water to sustain ODF.

The lack of access to water is one of the reasons for non-use of toilets in many rural areas. What is the way out?

For the SBM, water is not only important for the adoption of safe sanitation practices, but also for sustaining it. In coordination with NRDWP, villages which are ODF are treated as a special category under the programme to ensure rural piped water supply on priority, incentivising the SBM outcome indicator.

Water is important for sanitation, and the use of the correct technology helps optimise water use. For rural areas, we promote what is called the rural sanitary pan, which has a rather steep slope compared to the urban pan, and hence requires only 1-1.5 litres of water to flush as compared to five litres in an urban pan.

The recent [released in March 2018] National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2017-18 put toilet usage in the country at 93.4% and reconfirmed the ODF status of 95.6% of ODF verified villages, showing that usage in toilets in rural India is very high.

Solid and liquid waste management is an important component of SBM-G. How are you ensuring that there is robust support infrastructure in rural areas to enable them to manage their solid waste and faecal sludge appropriately without the fear of contaminating the surrounding including water?

Solid and liquid waste management comes under the ODF plus [sustaining community/ public toilet usage by ensuring functionality, cleanliness, and maintenance] component of the SBM-G and the implementation of the same is a parallel process for the overall cleanliness of villages. Earlier this year, we added to the solid and liquid waste management family the Galvanizing Organic Bio Agro Resource dhan or GOBARdhan, with the message that turning waste to resource is of acute importance.

The scheme aims to positively impact village cleanliness and generate wealth and energy from cattle and organic waste. The scheme also aims at creating new rural livelihood opportunities and enhancing income for farmers and other rural people. Phase I of the scheme has begun with an attempt to cover half of the districts of the country by the end of the year.

As I mentioned earlier, the twin-pit toilets convert faecal material to safe and organic rich manure; so there is no separate faecal sludge generated at all.

Assessing the same, the NARSS 2017-18 found that 70% villages surveyed had minimal litter and minimal stagnant water.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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