A quiet revolution stirred the heart of India, finding its voice in a compassionate resolve way back in 2014. It was incredibly audacious in scale, aiming to sweep clean the country’s decrepit sanitation landscape: More than six lakh villages and 25 crore households. Named Swachh Bharat Mission, the initiative required the construction of millions of toilets and engineering a cultural transformation to encourage countless Indians, accustomed to open defecation, to adopt safe sanitation practices. More significantly, it was about redefining the sordid lives of India’s more than five million sanitation workers and ending the degrading but rampant practice of manual scavenging.
Today, more than 11 crore toilets and 2.23 lakh community sanitary complexes stand in eloquent testimony to the fact that nothing is impossible in the face of resolute political will and the unstinted participation of masses.
Indeed, as we celebrate the ninth anniversary of this mission, it is crucial to appreciate its remarkable progress. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) Phase II, 75% of India’s villages have achieved ODF-Plus status. This recognition is reserved for villages that have not only maintained their open defecation-free (ODF) status but have also successfully managed solid and liquid waste. Over 4.43 lakh villages are now ODF-Plus.
The impact of improved sanitation goes far beyond cleanliness. It translates into tangible health benefits by significantly reducing the incidence of diseases like diarrhoea, the second leading cause of death among children under five. Poor sanitation is also linked with typhoid, intestinal worm infections and polio. Moreover, better sanitation reduces the unnecessary use of antibiotics, contributing to the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
Improved sanitation leads to numerous social and economic gains. It lowers healthcare costs for individuals and society, freeing up resources for investment in education, skill development and more. It enhances individual productivity and increases women’s participation in the workforce, ultimately resulting in higher family incomes and poverty reduction.
Furthermore, enhanced sanitation facilities empower women by increasing school attendance among girls and providing them with safety and dignity. The economic benefits are also substantial, with every dollar invested in water and sanitation having a multiplier benefit in developing countries. Better sanitation facilities boost economic productivity and workforce involvement, profiting the tourism industry by attracting more visitors.
In addition, investing in sanitation enables the recovery of water, renewable energy and nutrients from faecal waste, promoting a more sustainable and circular economy. This not only saves resources but also addresses environmental concerns.
However, reforming sanitation in a sustainable way on such a scale is not easy; it is fraught with multiple challenges, such as faecal sludge management, manual scavenging and resources, and cultural and mindset issues. These challenges highlight the need for innovative waste management systems to ensure a healthy environment. Effective waste management includes proper waste disposal, treatment of faecal material to prevent environmental damage and behavioural change through a trained workforce.
Partnerships between corporations and village communities can be beneficial in turning waste into a valuable resource. With the help of cost-effective technologies, waste disposal programmes can become more sustainable. Building the capacity of gram panchayats to manage household and plastic waste and wastewater at the village level is crucial for the effective management and sustainability of waste disposal programmes.
As the Swachh Bharat Mission continues its journey, it is essential to factor in the interlinkages between water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and sectors such as health, education, gender, nutrition and livelihoods. This holistic approach ensures successful and sustainable implementation of waste disposal programmes at scale.
But the story of Swachh Bharat Mission is not just about statistics or numbers; it is a tale of resilience, compassion and the unwavering belief that change is possible. It is a reminder that incredible transformations can occur faster when corporate citizens like Reckitt join hands at the grassroots level with initiatives like the Harpic World Toilet College (HWTC).
Reckitt is actively involved in the Swachh Bharat Mission with the aim to put an end to manual scavenging and improving the status of sanitation workers. HWTC has trained over 100,000 sanitation workers, providing them with alternative livelihood options and enabling them to break free from the stigma of manual scavenging. It aims to facilitate the adoption of a futuristic and mechanised approach to sanitation infrastructure maintenance, not just for efficiency but also for the safety and honour of every sanitation worker. The Reckitt programme’s aim is brief but powerful: Zero incidents and zero accidents during sanitation operations in India by 2026.
In its journey, HWTC aims to create a more equitable society by leaving no one behind. Every rupee invested by it has delivered Rs 23.20 worth of social value, a testament to collective dreams and dedicated individuals. HWTC’s story demonstrates resilience, compassion and a firm belief that change is possible. It is a reminder that corporate leaders and grassroots movements working together can bring about incredible transformations.
As the years roll by, the silent revolution continues to touch the lives of millions of people, including sanitation workers and their families. Swachh Bharat Mission stands as an eloquent testimony to the fact that any step aimed at uplifting the human spirit, regardless of its size, is a step in the right direction. In 2014, the idea may have seemed audacious, but now India is well on its way to not only sanitising its toilets and sewers but also cleaning out age-old taboos and stigmas, as it strives to create a more dignified and compassionate world for all. Safe sanitation, including of sanitation workers, is indeed our birthright, and we must have it.
Ravi Bhatnagar is Director, External Affairs & Partnerships, Reckitt South of Asia-SOA.