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HomeOPINIONThe ground reality of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: don't kill the messenger

The ground reality of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: don’t kill the messenger

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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: wake up to ground reality
Pic: Facebook/SudheerShukla

Recently, the Central Government suspended K S James, Director, of the International Institute of Population Sciences citing irregularity in recruitment. The world, however, knows that the action was taken because he brought forth some ugly truths about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. During the initial years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I had gone to town in praise of the scheme and I still feel that it is a great example of how schemes should be formulated and implemented. However, as I was in touch with a large number of people who work at the ground level, I was receiving informal feedback about how this scheme too was faltering at the ground level. There were disturbing informal reports about over-reporting and data being fudged to corner accolades. As there were no credible evaluation reports, I decided to reach out to an organization in 2021 that was working in the field and doing commendable work in some of the Districts.

The questions that were proposed to be asked were very simple ones:

  1. Do you have a toilet at home?
  2. Are you using the toilet?

These questions or their answers didn’t require any expertise. Families were selected randomly from three Districts

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  1. Kalahandi, Odisha
  2. Nandurbar, Maharashtra
  3. Bahraich, UP

Responses were received from 568 families in Kalahandi, 533 in Nandurbar and 83 in Bharaich.

All these three Districts had been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). In fact, the entire country had been declared ODF well before 2nd, October 2020, the target date for ODF. The findings of this survey were startling. Around 33.4% of the respondent said that they had no toilet. This was incredible. What was even worse was that 54.8% of those that had toilets said that they were not using the toilet. Now, if all this is true, how can these Districts qualify as ODF? There could be a possibility of toilets falling into disuse after being used for a while (though the number is pretty high) but how can a District be ODF if the toilets didn’t exist? Are these toilets existing only on paper?

There are indeed limitations in this survey. The number of respondents is very small. The randomness of selection could also be questioned. However, the agency that had surveyed had no bias.

Despite the huge limitations of this survey, the findings are extremely serious. It calls for a larger survey/evaluation by an independent third party. To my mind, this is the job of NITI. Evaluate what is going on and suggest corrective steps and not get down to implementing schemes themselves. I had said it in the past and I reiterate it. The job of implementing the schemes is that of the concerned Department. If NITI is a part of the implementing process, how can it get the scheme evaluated? The objective would then be to somehow project any scheme to be a success. I posed this question to an officer, pointing out the data emerging from this limited survey. The response was a surprising one, “Ground realities are gross with data fudging at its peak”. This is not only shocking but raises many questions.

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Also Read: Why do some government schemes work; others don’t?

Should NITI follow the “Make in India” approach to making things happen in the social sector? There has been, to my knowledge, no evaluation of “Make in India”. The grim reality, however, is that we have the dubious distinction of a reduction in the growth of GDP for 4 consecutive years:

2016-17: 8.2%

2017-18: 7.2%

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2018-19: 6.1%

2019-20: 4.2%

This was well before COVID arrived and “Make in India” should have impacted the GDP. It didn’t

The same was the situation in the context of employment generation. Unemployment was increasing and was getting reflected in the figures released by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. The Government in its wisdom stopped releasing the data after 2016. We now have no Government data on unemployment. Many have doubted the credibility of CMIE data but that is what we have. The CMIE Data shows that for graduates in the age group of 20-24 years, unemployment was 42% in 2017. It rose to 55.1% in 2018 and to 63.4% in 2019. All this was before COVID arrived and during the years “Make in India” should have had a positive impact on employment in the country. It didn’t happen.

Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Puri attending the Swachhotsav-2023 International Day of Zero Waste ceremony under a Swachh Bharat Mission Urban 2.0 Initiative at India Habitat Centre, in New Delhi on March 29, 2023.

The approach adopted in “Make in India” was around road shows all over the world and in India. The lion, in all its forms, represented the approach. It roared but the key question is the distance it travelled. No one even discusses it today but ironically a similar approach is being adopted in the social sector where NITI now plays the role of Super-Department, supplanting the role of many Departments and bypassing the State structure to interface directly with the District Collectors. All this makes for good conferences and road shows but by-passing the State hierarchy does not augur well for the future. Some States have already resented it. NITI has also managed to create an elaborate data-based monitoring system reminiscent of the 20 Point Programme but much more sophisticated where each District is induced to “manage” the data to be on the top. This unhealthy competition has led to a situation where “Ground realities are gross with data fudging at its peak”. If the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, with an extremely robust reporting system, could suffer from the infirmities of reporting as have emerged from the small survey, it is not difficult to imagine what would the situation be in other schemes.

The key question is whether NITI will get a larger third-party independent evaluation of the schemes done. Will NITI change its strategy from focusing on road shows and a consultant-driven approach to becoming a facilitator and enabler to the Departments? Will NITI wake up to the ground reality?

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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