The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are essential parts of the protective ring of health.
According to an estimate by the Geneva-based Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, 3.6 billion people still do not have access to safe sanitation and one in three persons do not have basic hand-washing facilities.
Out of the 300 million women and girls who menstruate on any given day, many do not have the means to deal safely with their menstrual health and hygiene. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), the understated cousin of health, has now climbed to the centre-table, thanks to an upstart virus.
The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) mounted by India to deal with the stress in the WASH situation, can potentially serve as a template for the rest of the world.
Conceived and commanded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, the SBM had a glowing culmination in October 2019; when all states and union territories declared themselves open defecation free (ODF).
In 2021, the budgetary allocation to SBM was increased to Rs 1.5 lakh crore, a scale of funding never before seen in India or another country that required attending to sanitation. Indeed, in 2018, the World Health Organisation assessed that three lakh diarrhoea-related deaths will have been averted by SBM’s success over the 2014-19 period.
A study by the UN Children’s Fund concluded that given a household in an ODF village saved Rs. 50,000 a year due to the time saved and reduced medical costs. Another UN report highlighted the economic benefits of SBM in terms of the creation of an equivalent of 7.5 million full time jobs.
SBM has proved to be a behaviour change programme, with over 600 million people moving from open defecation to using safe toilets. A Dalberg study suggests that the mission’s information, education, and communication spend was equivalent of Rs. 22,000-26,000 crore from various agencies and partners.
SBM became the natural reference when India’s 1.4 billion people faced another behaviour challenge— masking, social distancing, and hand washing.
As the world struggled with the dilemma of reopening the schools, a UN report cautioned that nearly 820 million children worldwide do not have basic hand-washing facilities at school, putting them at higher risk of Covid-19 and other transmittable diseases.
For India’s 1.6 million schools, what came handy were the Swachh Vidyalaya (clean school) assets— functional and separate toilets for boys and girls. Adding a set of Covid-19 hygiene measures, a secure campus was made ready to receive 250 million children back in schools.
The new phase of SBM is engaged in the more complex agenda of solid and liquid waste management with a focus to make all cities garbage-free.
An amount of Rs. 1,41,678 crore will be spent to manage fecal sludge, plastic reduction, wastewater treatment, and source segregation of garbage in urban areas. The highlight is the adoption of a circular economy— converting waste to resources. In February 2022, a large bioCNG plant based on municipal solid waste was launched in Indore, which is routinely adjudged as India’s cleanest city.
The Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention in 2018, which brought together representatives from 70 countries, was a moment of hope for countries struggling to overcome sanitation issues. After the Delhi Declaration, several countries in Africa and Asia decided to follow India’s lead.
The Indian experience demonstrated that bit by bit is not the way out for countries that face a severe WASH situation. Tight timelines and the bold allocation of public funds is the key. If countries execute s is the involvement this task in a campaign mode, the goals of Agenda 2030 will be within reach.