Prime Minister Narendra Modi (PTI file)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (PTI file)

Opinion | Modi’s revolution of attitudes that has wowed Bill Gates

The Gates Foundation has gone by the audacity and carefully measured impact of Swachh Bharat

The announcement by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) that it will be giving its Goalkeepers Global Goals Award to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has evoked outrage from the usual suspects. On Tuesday, a dozen demonstrators marched to the BMGF headquarters in Seattle and delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, asking the foundation to rescind the award. Three Nobel Peace Prize winners also sent a co-signed protest letter.

Both petition and letter refer to the 2002 Gujarat riots, Kashmir, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and attacks on minorities. This article is not about these accusations, but I should still mention some facts. Every court in the country has cleared Modi of culpability in the Gujarat riots. According to figures released in 2005 by the Congress-led government, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots. The NRC’s exclusion of 1.9 million people was through a process ordered and monitored by the Supreme Court, which specifically excluded the government from the exercise. As for attacks on minorities, yes, there have been hate crimes, but there is enough evidence that even a drunken brawl involving a minority person is labelled by some media as a hate crime. This tweet thread lists about 50 authentic hate crimes against Hindus, including Dalits, since the day the new Modi government took oath. None has been highlighted in mainstream media.

The Gates Foundation has said it respects the petitioners’ views, but Modi would receive the award for providing 500 million Indians safer sanitation. However, BMGF, critics allege, has been duped by inflated government data. Now, Bill Gates has been accused of many things, but even his worst enemies admit he is one of the sharpest data minds on earth. For SBM, among other things, BMGF looked at independently verified numbers that the World Bank uses for disbursements for the mission, a Unicef report on its economic impact, and a World Health Organization (WHO) study on its health gains. BMGF also did its own survey.

However, the real point is not whether the percentage of open defecation-free (ODF) villages is 99.6% or 71.4%. The point is that for the first time since Mahatma Gandhi, a national leader brought a core problem of Indian life, society, and development right upfront. He did so during an Independence Day speech, without being coy about a bodily function that we Indians have a weird psychological relationship with, and started a massive movement unlike anything in the world. This was more than revolutionary.

The SBM is hardly about only constructing toilets. Its most crucial aspect is bringing about a change in thinking about sanitation, altering age-old attitudes that reside deep in the collective consciousness. That takes much more than five years. I am acquainted with the exemplary work done by a close friend, a legislative councillor in Bihar. Building toilets took a small fraction of the time and effort he needed to convince people to start using them regularly.

What Modi started is a societal transformation and its impact is showing. The Unicef study found that, taking into account financial, time, and health angles, the economic gain to a household was 4.7 times the cost incurred on a toilet (many households have to bear a bit of the cost, though most of it comes from the government). The WHO study estimated that SBM Grameen is likely to have averted more than 300,000 deaths between 2014 and October 2019. BMGF’s survey found that in ODF districts, there were 32% fewer cases of diarrhoea among children, 15% fewer cases of stunting, and 37% less women with lower body mass index, compared with non-ODF districts.

As the news of these clear benefits keeps travelling, more and more Indians will alter their habits. Mindsets that have never been questioned for centuries take time to change. India will not meet its target of being 100% ODF by 2 October, but it does not matter. What Modi said on Independence Day in 2014 took much more courage and patriotism than sabre-rattling against Pakistan. In one stroke, he cut through the vacuous pro-development, pro-great-nation bilge of all our past leaders and kick-started something both fundamental and gigantic in scope.

The Gates Foundation recognized the audacity and scale of Swachh Bharat, and carefully measured its impact on the ground. Biased nitpickers should keep quiet.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

Close