New Delhi: The Indian government on Thursday started the Swachh Survekshan survey, dubbed as the world’s largest study on cleanliness.

Surveyers will reach out to more than 200 urban local bodies on the first day and the entire exercise is expected to be completed by March. For the first time, the Swachh Survekshan survey will assess all the 4,041 towns in the country and cover a population of about 400 million people, said V.K. Jindal, mission director of Swachh Bharat Mission at the ministry of housing and urban affairs.

“For the first time, we have also introduced negative marking to discourage cities that give false information," Jindal said.

In its third iteration, the yearly cleanliness survey, that arose as a mechanism to evaluate progress as well as deficiencies in waste management in urban areas, has undergone several changes in response to criticism.

Apart from negative marking, citizen feedback would also have a much higher weightage this year compared to previous years.

But despite the changes, much of the survey’s focus is still on infrastructure and not outcomes, said Chandra Bushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment. “Cities that claim to set up waste to energy plants or cities that possess a fleet of GPS-enabled trucks get higher scores. People’s participation and social change don’t count in these surveys," he said.

Pointing to Alappuzha in Kerala as an example, Bushan said the town has won international acclaim, including from the United Nations, for being a zero-waste town. But in the 2017 survey, Alappuzha’s rank was a poor 380. “The reason is the town follows the frugal Indian model of decentralized management, based largely on segregation at source, composting and very little investments in technology."

Another persisting criticism of the survey is that the inspections are not a surprise. The cities get intimated in advance. “City-wide cleaning starts three days before the surveyers show up," said Raagini Jain, a solid waste management expert associated with the Centre’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “Only for the survey period, many of these city administrations actually work. The survey should ideally be without intimation."

Responding to the criticism, Jindal said that though the cities are informed about the arrival of surveyers several days in advance, there are enough built-in components that go into the overall score which require sustained, year-round work.

Under the first survey, Swachh Survekshan-2016, 73 cities with more than 1 million population and all the state capitals were ranked. Mysuru had topped the list.

In the 2017 survey, 434 cities with over 100,000 population and all the state capitals were ranked. Indore had emerged as the cleanest city. The 2018 survey is the first such pan-India exercise.

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