Against All Odds and Still Standing Firm: Four Years of Swachh Bharat Mission

Shefali Kushwaha
Shefali Kushwaha, Consultant, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation & Swachh Bharat Mission

145 years have passed, yet his dream stays in the eyes of not just one, but in the eyes of the whole nation. Who could have thought that a dream of a Mahatma would have been brought to life after all these years in the form of a revolution, the jan andolan.

Gandhi’s dream of making India a clean and well-sanitated country is not hidden from anyone. This dream was brought to life in 2014 when the whole country was unleashed by the wave of Swachh Bharat Mission. The deadline for this mission was set to be 2nd October 2019 by when the whole country had to be made Open Defecation Free (ODF). Not only was this mission going to bring the change in the mind-set of the people but was also going to have various other benefits including menstrual hygiene as well as huge employment opportunities.

But this programme did not see only the support but the aversion as well. The programme that they were dealing with was not just restricted to construction and cleanliness but was also questioning every habit, every practice, every routine these people were used to. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, people tended to stay resistant and follow the norms they usually were following. Comfort, habits, beliefs, the whole system- everything was being questioned. All that remained to ask was whether it was successful and to what extent.


A report by the United Nations says that in India, more than 1 lakh people die of water-borne disease on an annual basis. In almost one third of India’s 600 districts, the ground water is not fit for drinking because of salts beyond tolerance levels. A World Resources Report says that about 70% of India’s water supply is seriously polluted with sewage effluents. According to UN reports, India’s water quality is very poor, making India rank 120 out of 122 nations in terms of quality of water available to its citizens.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has recorded the highest number od diarhhoeal deaths- 22.21% of total deaths nationwide, from 2012 to 2017, according to data, followed by West Bengal (14.33%), Assam (12.03%), Odisha (10.63%) and Madhya Pradesh (7.24%). (Source:


The timeline for Swachh Bharat Mission was set to be from 2nd Oct 2014 till 2nd Oct 2019. At the time of its commencement, the total sanitation coverage of India stood at 38.70% with Kerela being the only state with more than 90% sanitation coverage. As many as 7 states stood below 30% sanitation coverage. Comparing with the current scenario, the high progress becomes evident with the national sanitation coverage rising to 95.89% and all states but 2 almost at 100% sanitation coverage. As many as 88337800 toilets have been built so far in the country.

What makes it different from any other programme is its approach of bringing together people towards the cause and not just being another government step towards cleanliness. In order to fulfil the objectives it had promised, a behavioural change-focussed approach was the need of the hour. The earliest phases were most attentive to trainings, applying new methodologies, understanding the mind-set of the rural masses, devising the most effective and fruitful tools to trigger them and make them realize the utmost importance of defecating in toilets and not in open. The mid phase saw a mix of huge fund flows and construction, with equal or lesser focus on training and capacity building. This could have been a result of efficient triggering tools and effective noticeable changes in the mind-set of the society that they were getting interested in getting their toilets built. The last phase is seeing more focus on sustainability along with construction in areas lacking or over-reported earlier. Sustainability will remain to be the only focus and thus forming the objective of ODF Plus, which will be succeeding ODF.


Being a member of this team in one of the laggard districts, I have seen a lot of commotion when it comes to media reporting. Every district has an official Facebook and Twitter page for its district’s progress. These pages give updates on regular practices, activities, success stories from the district. Apart from these, there have been articles in newspapers and journals about this Mission, praising the commendable work being done and the pace with which it is moving. It is undoubtedly a dream come true. But every coin has two faces. Lately, the negative media has been on a rise, with districts being exposed of not constructing toilets properly and instead declaring them ODF.


In my opinion, there is another picture which everyone has been ignoring. This Mission is for the people, considering the fact that toilets are for them and it is also by the people, considering that the funds are usually transferred to the beneficiary’s account from Gram Nidhi 6 accounts. Once this happens, it becomes the sole responsibility of the beneficiary to get the toilet constructed. They can only be advised or motivated. During my field visits in more than one district, I have seen beneficiaries keeping the funds to themselves because they are too poor or they do not wish to construct toilets due to any reason. The administration does not seem to be at fault at this point. Another issue that comes up is non-coverage of total households and people still defecating in the open and the district declared as ODF. The real problem here is the survey for the eligible beneficiaries which was conducted in 2012, after which the population has increased quite a lot, thus bringing in this gap. Another aspect to be noticed is the not-so-proper monitoring of quality of construction, which might result in decreased life of these toilets. A proper check regarding the same might be helpful in the long run by increasing the life of toilets as well maintaining sustainability. There have been discrepancies- a lot of them- but none of them is irreversible and almost in all the places where such occurrences have taken place, measures are being taken to make up for them. But you can never have the whole of anything. There are areas where people have been extremely resistant to this change, no matter how hard you try, you always tend to leave behind a few. They can be the loop-holes of this campaign but definitely not the parameters to judge the effectiveness.

But Swachh Bharat Mission has never been about mere numbers, it has always been about change it has brought about. A walk in any village and a talk with the rural masses will show the actual success of this campaign. People are happy, contented, and proud to have their toilets. You find people who not only construct their own toilets, but also take charge and influence the people around. You find men proud of giving their families a sense of safety, you find brothers justifying the Rakhis by their sisters, you find husbands fulfilling the assurances they had made to their wives, you find girls no more leaving education as they approach adolescence, you find boys with a sense of responsibility. But on the other hand, you also find people with rigid practices in denial modes, you find people who might still take some time to get accustomed. You find acceptance; you find hostility as well. A behaviour is a hard thing to change. Yet with my eyes, the wave of change is definitely moving in the right direction. And it will surely take everything along that falls in its way.

Shefali Kushwaha

Shefali Kushwaha

Shefali Kushwaha is currently working as a Consultant with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Govt of India for Swachh Bharat Mission. She has worked for districts Mahoba and Hardoi in Swachh Bharat Mission. She completed her postgraduate in Marketing and Strategy from Indian Institute of Management Kashipur.

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