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World Toilet Day 2023: 'No One Should Be Left Behind'

In an interview on the occasion of the World Toilet Day on November 19, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Minister of Jal Shakti, gives a snapshot of the country’s exciting sanitation success story.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Minister of Jal Shakti, Ministry of Jal Shakti
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One of the remarkable successes India has achieved in recent times is in sanitation. More than 11 crore toilets have been constructed since 2014, accompanied by behaviour change campaigns among masses for promotion of safe sanitation practices. The impact is multifold. The incidence of diseases and mortality, especially among small children, has declined. People are saving on medical expenses. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan upfront, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has been the key minister in implementing the programme since he assumed the charge of the Ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019. In an exhaustive interview in the run up to the World Toilet Day on November 19, he gives a snapshot of the country’s exciting sanitation journey, its impact and the economic benefits.

India’s recent success of the sanitation initiative has been widely recognised. What was the genesis of this initiative?

In 2014, the Prime Minister announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort a plan to free the country from open defecation within five years, in time for the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji. This announcement was made when Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were being discussed globally at a time when the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was coming to an end. The SDG discussions identified sanitation and drinking water as critical subjects. The global assessment revealed that approximately 100 crore people were compelled to defecate openly, with 60% of them in India. Considering such conditions of these countries and the challenges to overcome, the world set a time limit of 15 years, until 2030, to provide access to toilets in every home worldwide.

How will you sum up the major achievements in sanitation?

In a span of five years, Prime Minister Modi led a mass movement to build toilets in India, leading to construction of more than 11 crore toilets. Every household in the 2011 baseline survey became open defecation-free (ODF), and the entire country eventually followed. On October 2, 2019, the country was declared ODF.

We initially viewed it as an achievement. During a speech in Gandhinagar in 2019, however, Prime Minister Modi clarified that it was not our ultimate goal but merely a significant milestone.

We then shifted our focus from this milestone towards the concept of achieving complete sanitation. Our approach involved completing the construction of the existing toilets and those beyond the baseline and conducting a leftover baseline (LOB) survey, which led to the construction of approximately one crore additional toilets.

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Photo: Sanjay Rawat

How did you address the gaps highlighted by the survey?

Despite our efforts, the annual survey revealed gaps. In response, we devised a new scheme centred on the principle of “No one should be left behind” as part of our dynamic complete sanitation programme. The concept of complete sanitation involves managing both liquid and solid waste. The Prime Minister proposed that we work on managing both types of waste. There should be adequate facilities for the treatment of grey water that comes out of the households. This can be achieved by measures like constructing soak pits that can help treat the water naturally and increase the groundwater or by treating wetlands employing technology and using it for farming or any other purpose.

What is the difference between aspiring, rising and model villages?

The word “aspiring” means that at least one type of work related to solid or liquid waste management has been done successfully. Currently, more than three lakh villages are qualified under the aspiring category. Of these, 56,000  villages fall under the “rising” category, meaning they have progressed in liquid and solid waste management. Once a village becomes “aspiring”, its ultimate goal is to become a “model” village. To achieve this, they must prioritise visual cleanliness and other related activities.

Over one lakh villages have attained the status of model villages, meaning that approximately 20% ... have been recognised for their efforts

What do the numbers reflect?

Currently, over one lakh villages across the country have attained the status of model villages, meaning that approximately 20% of all villages have been recognised for their efforts. The programme is set to be completed in 2026.

A cleanliness revolution has started in rural India. Of the 746 total districts, 365 have achieved the ODF- Plus status, while 79 districts have reached the ODF-Plus Model level. This initiative has touched every village in these districts. Regarding blocks, 4,363 have achieved the ODF-Plus status, with around 1,000 being model blocks. The cleanliness campaign, which began with the construction of toilets on October 2, 2014, has expanded from building toilets to achieving complete cleanliness across the country.

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What has been done for waste management?

In terms of waste management, innovative approaches have been undertaken in India. For instance, the first-ever urban village was connected to the sewage treatment infrastructure of the city, serving as a successful model for other areas. The government supported the installation of over 2,580 faecal sludge treatment plants in remote villages across the country. Additionally, women’s self-help groups have set up plastic waste management units in approximately 2,500 blocks. Plastic waste is collected and baled in the villages. This plastic is then recycled or used to construct roads, increasing the durability of the streets against water and corrosion.

In cases where plastic cannot be used for any other purpose, it is utilised as fuel in industries like cement. In addition, there are many areas in the country where constructing individual toilets is difficult, especially in densely populated villages and states. In such cases, we built approximately 2,40,000 community sanitation complexes in villages, which the panchayat are managing. As of now, a total of 11.33 crore toilets have been constructed.

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Photo: Shutterstock

What about solid waste?

Solid waste management has three main verticals, one of which is the management of faecal sludge produced by toilets. To treat the faecal sludge, treatment facilities have been constructed. These facilities can be created at the block level or below by connecting two or three blocks within the district. The second vertical is plastic waste management. The third component involves the management of cow dung and organic waste, for which a disposal system needs to be established. The fourth requirement is that the village must be visually clean. If a village meets the standards for both solid and liquid waste management and is visually clean, it will be designated as an ODF-Plus village. We have been working on this for five years now and have plans extending to 2026. So far, we have implemented three types of benchmarks for 746 districts across the country. These benchmarks are categorised as aspiring, rising and model villages.

What are you doing to deal with organic waste?

We noticed that we did not have a plan for disposing of organic waste, which was a concern. To address this issue, we launched a scheme called Gobardhan Yojna, which aims to convert waste into wealth. Specifically, we focus on two types of organic waste: cow dung and vegetable waste. We create a compost pit for these wastes and then use the compost to enrich our soil. This helps us make the most of our organic waste while benefiting the environment.

We have implemented a two-pronged approach to maximise the value derived from cow dung. Firstly, we have signed agreements with gas distribution companies and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Under the Gobardhan initiative, we are committed to constructing gobar gas plants with the gas produced being bought by an oil company at a predetermined rate.

Secondly, we have introduced standardisation for the resulting manure, whether it originates from the pit or is extracted from it. Before this, there was no uniformity in organic fertiliser standards nationwide. We have taken the initiative to standardise and have issued a fertilisation procurement order. If we can secure subsidies for this organic fertiliser similar to those granted for chemical fertilisers in the future, it would offer a comprehensive solution.

How would you sum up the overall impact?

In the past, open defecation in the country led to water contamination, resulting in spreading of diseases. However, there has been a significant decrease in the incidence of diseases, especially among small children, and the mortality rate has also declined. Previously, around three lakh people, particularly children, would die every year due to such diseases, but the number of deaths has decreased significantly. Deaths due to vector-borne diseases have now come down to a few thousand, which is a significant drop.

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Photo: Shutterstock

What are the financial implications? What is the business case?

According to global institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization, the country has approximately  19.50 crore rural households. Some institutions have studied the expenditure incurred by these households on diseases, particularly vector-borne diseases. The finding is that since the incidence of such diseases had declined sharply, their expenditure has fallen.

Due to illness, the households had to bear direct costs for doctor consultation and medication. Furthermore, they were burdened by indirect costs due to their inability to work, eventually leading to job losses. When we calculate the combined impact of these two factors, the average annual savings for households amount to Rs 50,000. Over five years, the monetised value of these savings reflects a remarkable rate of return exceeding 400%, surpassing the returns of any other business venture. This profitable enterprise has also contributed to substantial GDP growth.

What were the factors behind the success of the sanitation programme?

The success of the sanitation programme relied on four Ps. Firstly, political will played a crucial role. The government and political leadership of the country took the decision to launch the sanitation programme, and we were able to implement this decision successfully.

Secondly, public spending was necessary. The government had to allocate funds for the programme as there could be no expected results without funding. Thirdly, partnerships were essential. We involved celebrities, political leaders, social faces, social organisations and subject matter experts in the movement, and all played a crucial role in achieving success.

Based on these four pillars, we achieved success, and now the fifth pillar we are working on is persuasion to maintain this pace. To do this, we conduct the Swachh Bharat Survekshan every year, which includes physical, electronic and digital surveys. The survey results show that people’s attitude towards sanitation has changed, and their way of thinking about work has improved. The utilisation of toilets has also increased significantly due to this programme. 

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