How is the Swachh Bharat Mission going?

"Swachh Bharat"
How India learns to love the toilet

Akshay Kumar is a Bollywood star and subscribes to the role of the action hero. For his film “Toilet. Ek Prem Katha ”(Toilets. A Love Story), however, he has slipped into an unusual role. He plays the farmer's son Keshav, who is confronted with a surprising problem on the first day after the wedding: his politically conscious wife Jaya is leaving him because there is no toilet in his house.

The story has a real background. According to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), more than half of Indian households, and thus more than 600 million people, did not have a toilet in 2012. The emerging country thus has by far the largest proportion of people worldwide who do their "business" outdoors. Experts call it "open defecation" and consider it a public health hazard.
Diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera and hepatitis, high maternal and child mortality as well as growth and development delays in children are consequences of open defecation. World Toilet Day on November 19, which the United Nations launched in 2013, highlights this problem

Mission "Clean India"

But there is good news. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he has rushed to clean up India with verve. “We live in the 21st century,” he said in a famous 2014 Independence Day speech. “Have we ever hurt our mothers and sisters having to do their business outdoors? Can't we just provide toilets? "
"Swachh Bharat Abhiyan" is the name of the "Clean India" mission launched by Modi - and it is showing success. According to government figures, fewer than 40 percent of Indian households had a toilet at the beginning of the campaign, today it is more than 85 percent. (BMGF) maintains numerous programs in the health sector in India.

Skepticism is growing

But paper is known to be patient. Skeptical reports are mounting in the Indian media. Toilets are being built but not used, success reports are being embellished, these are just some of the headlines. Shah Alam Khan from the renowned "All India Institute of Medical Sciences" (AIIMS) believes that there has been no "statistically significant reduction in epidemics" since the beginning of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).
The BMGF holds against it with its own study. After that, there are fewer cases of diarrhea and malnutrition in villages that are free from open defecation (ODF). An independent study by representatives of the World Bank and the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) recently came to the conclusion that 95 percent of the villages in India declared as ODF are in fact, and 77 percent of the households surveyed have a toilet.

Two toilets for Vijayalakshmi's family

But it is worth taking a closer look. Hirmathla is a village of 2000 people in the state of Haryana. Only about 100 kilometers from the capital Delhi and yet another world. The world in which Akshay Kumar's film is set. Vijayalakshmi is 39 years old and lives in a brightly painted house, the rooms of which are grouped around an open courtyard. A generator rattles somewhere that ensures that the ubiquitous mobile phone can be charged even in the event of a power failure.
She proudly shows her two toilets, one on the ground floor and one on the roof. “Until 2009 we didn't have a toilet and we didn't know anything about hygiene,” she explains. "But now we are nine family members, you need two toilets," she says. That was not always so. When Vijayalakshmi was pregnant with her firstborn, a problem worsened that affects many women who do not have a toilet in India. Often out of shame they do not get around to doing their business in the field because men are there and they keep shifting the aisle. Constipation is a common consequence.

A village becomes a model

"During the pregnancy, I had no bowel movements for 25 days," says Vijayalakshmi. “When my son was born he was extremely thin and his mental development was delayed. Presumably he was poisoned. None of that would have happened if we had already had a toilet back then. ”Today her son is 22 years old, married and has a job at a bank. “Everything is fine,” she says.
The arrival of the aid organization “Sulabh International” in Hirmathla was a blessing for them. The NGO founded in 1970 by the sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak set itself the task of turning Hirmathla into a “model village”. "When we first came to Hirmathla, the village had 140 households and 20 toilets," says Monika Jain, a Sulabh employee. “Today every house has a toilet, some even more. The number of toilets is 178. ”But this goal was not achieved overnight. But why is it so difficult to promote the topic?

Toilets were considered unclean

"Although there were toilets in India as early as the Harappa civilization (the Bronze Age), we have specific problems," says Pathak. The purity notions of the caste system meant that only the untouchables (today: Dalits) could handle feces. Anyone else would ritually pollute themselves. ”Pathak's own family were wealthy and from the highest caste of the Brahmins. “There wasn't a single toilet in our big house because the Devi-Purana (a sacred scripture of the Hindus) says that one should not do one's business near human settlements. Toilets were considered unclean. "
Pathak found this absurd. He and his team developed simple toilets in whose double septic tanks the faeces are hermetically sealed. After about two years they are completely odorless and can be used as fertilizer and even as a building material. Manual toilet cleaning is no longer necessary. Prejudices against the Dalits have therefore not yet disappeared. Pathak is nevertheless optimistic. “50 years ago nobody had a toilet; today it is more than half of the population. That's progress! "

Its a lot to do

Now the government has to tackle another problem: The “100 percent scientific disposal of solid waste,” says Rumi Aijaz, an expert in urban management at the “Observer Research Foundation” (ORF) think tank in Delhi. Because in many cities the sewage system is ailing and urban waste disposal is overloaded. So there is still a lot to be done.

In any case, Akshay Kumar's film was not only a great success in India. It has been shown in 50 countries around the world, including China. The popular actor is therefore already working on the sequel "Toilet 2". "We built the toilet, but the story is not over," he recently promised his fans on Twitter.


Britta Petersen is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think tank in New Delhi. She has lived in South Asia for 15 years. Before that, she worked as a correspondent for the Financial Times Deutschland in Afghanistan and India as well as office manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Pakistan.

Copyright: © Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Delhi
November 2018

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