During his election campaign, Narendra Modi promised toilets first and temples later, which he has followed up after becoming prime minister, with a project aimed at eliminating the practice of open defecation by 2019.
In his first Independence Day speech, Modi announced that within one year, every school in the country will have a toilet and there will be separate toilets for girl students. He also asked parliamentarians to use members of parliament local area development scheme (MPLADS) funds to build toilets. He also reiterated his commitment to building a Swachch Bharat (clean India) by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019.
The new government has announced that rural households without sanitation facilities will get Rs.15,000 each, up from Rs.10,000, for constructing toilets, and schools Rs.54,000, an increase from Rs.35,000. Community sanitary complexes will receive Rs.6 lakh (instead of Rs.2 lakh) and anganwadis (child care centres) will get Rs.20,000 (from Rs.8,000).
Claiming the scheme didn’t work well under the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the new regime has decided to delink its toilet construction programme from the rural jobs guarantee scheme.
The Modi government also decided to review the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) scheme, launched by the previous government in 2012, to eradicate open defecation, saying it was a failure.
“The government has placed a welcome emphasis on efficiency with its focus on ensuring that the bureaucracy is revitalized and is responsive. But I think the new government has not tried to examine the effectiveness of the past programmes. Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan is a great example. The problem with this programme has been that what households want does not often meet what is being offered to them,” said Sonalde Desai, senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), a think tank.
“Qualitative interviews by a fellow from NCAER about why households don’t build toilets show that people are concerned about hygiene and smell. Typical NBA toilets are single tank with a seepage pit. But for seepage pit to be safe, it must be built on permeable soil, away from groundwater supply, which is often not the case. If we are going to invest in toilets, we should invest in the right kind of toilets,” Desai added.
More than six decades after independence, and after spending nearly $4 billion on the total sanitation campaign between 1999 and 2010, more than 600 million Indians do not have access to a toilet either at home or in their communities, Census 2011 found.
Experts say even though they don’t see much difference on the ground after the new government has taken over, what is welcome is how the message of Clean India has reached even the grassroots now.
The prime minister has been consistently pressing the need for a cleaner India and has urged the corporate sector to help the country in achieving the goal. His speeches have mobilized several corporate houses, including Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Bharti Foundation.
“Previously, the issue of open defecation wasn’t discussed as much in public. Because this issue has been brought up consistently, the message has reached the grassroots level now. We are easily able to mobilize more corporate houses to help us in building toilets,” said R.K. Srinivasan, technical adviser for water and sanitation at Plan India, a non-profit organization.
The alleged rape and murder of two girls who had gone out to defecate in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh sparked a debate on rape, caste, patriarchy and, above all, lack of toilets. In his Independence Day speech, Modi strongly pitched for gender equality and advised parents to focus on raising their sons well.
“So far, all we know is that Modi is probably the best political orator that India has ever had. Even though it’s too early to judge, I don’t see he has done much in terms of implementing what he has been saying,” said S.L. Rao, a Bangalore-based sociologist and former director-general of the NCAER. “His statement asking parents to question their wards sounds wonderful, but what has he done to prevent violence against women?”
Women’s rights activists say what is needed is not a stricter law but implementation of the existing laws to protect women against various forms of violence. The new government is setting up at least 660 rape crisis centres in all 640 districts in the country and 20 additional locations. A national task force will be created to monitor and evaluate the functioning of all the centres annually.
The government also launched a financial inclusion plan called the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. Under this plan, the poor will be provided a bank account with the facility of a debit card and a built-in insurance cover of Rs.1 lakh, to put an “end to financial untouchability”, as Modi said.
However, it’s not clear how helpful it will be for poor who do not have enough cash to save.
A recent survey by the Reserve Bank of India College for Agriculture Banking (CAB) and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) states that not only were a substantive number of banking agents untraceable, but that even among those found to be working, a significant number have never conducted even a single transaction.
In the education department, no substantial schemes have been introduced by the government. In the health sector, the government has announced the setting up of an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in different states. It also announced that it will provide four new vaccines free of cost as part of a programme to reduce child mortality.
“It’s still not clear what he wants for the social sector. There is NREGA (national rural employment guarantee act), which they have left lingering. Primary education, which they should have focused on, has seen no movement,” said Yamini Aiyar, a senior research fellow and director of the accountability initiative of Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a research initiative to provide accessible analysis of implementation of government programmes.
“We know about some plans here and there but there is no grand vision,” Aiyar added.