India has come a long way since V.S. Naipaul recoiled from the filth he encountered here in the 1960s. The country has turned cleaner, most markedly over the past five years. Credit for this is due largely to the Swachh Bharat Mission. In recognition of its success, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to bestow its architect, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with its Global Gatekeeper Award. Critics have questioned the choice, but on the evidence of various independent studies that show a behavioural shift of massive proportions towards hygiene, it is indeed an award well deserved.
Half a billion Indians are estimated have quit defecating in the open since October 2014, when the mission began, with only an estimated 50 million to go. Lending credibility to this claim is a sanitation survey conducted by a verification agency under World Bank supervision that has found that 90.4% of villages are open defecation free, 93.1% of rural households have access to toilets, and that 96.5% of them use these. World Health Organization estimates suggest hundreds of thousands lives may have been saved by the cleanliness fostered by the mission.
Rarely has so much been achieved to improve ground conditions so rapidly in any country. Perhaps the size of the challenge has bred some scepticism. But Swachh Bharat has made this country safer for vast numbers. This is beyond dispute, and it’s a transformation that is worthy of celebration not just within India, but among all those who care about the welfare of have-nots.