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Indrajit Borah
Date of Publish: 2015-12-23

Look beyond the broom


To bring in sustainable clean public places, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan needs to focus on accountable public administration and social security system


In August, 2013, the Gauhati High Court issued notices to some Assam Government agencies including the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) and Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (DMDA) in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) jointly filed by two journalists, Nitali Sarmah and Sulakshana Mithi Kachari, on lack of public toilets for women in the city.

The PIL brought out the pathetic public civic amenities in Guwahati but such inadequate facilities have become a reality in most urban heartlands of India even after two decades of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act came into force. The Act, implemented from June, 1993,sought to strengthen decentralisation of power and empower the Urban Local Bodies (ULB).

Today, with a lot of hype around the Central Government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with politicians, executives and corporate honchos often conducting photo sessions by holding brooms in public places, one can’t help but reflect on the lack of empowerment of the ULBs. As much as one wants the cleanliness drive to succeed, the thought that whether it will actually achieve its goal can’t be wished away. Till now, one has seen a series of Government-sponsored cleanliness drives in different avatars. All lost their zing finally. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, with two sub-missions - Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) and Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), launched last year on Gandhi Jayanti, was preceded by the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Launched in April, 2012, by the UPA II Government at the Centre, the Abhiyan was a restructured version of yet another drive, the Total Sanitation Campaign, started in April, 1999.

Under the 1999 campaign, Rural Sanitation and Solid Waste Management were identified for specific interventions to bring in change. Nothing much seemed to have changed though. As per Census 2011, the practice of open defecation is still widespread in India as about 70 per cent of rural households and 19 per cent of urban households do not have access to toilets. The recent Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) aims at Urban Solid Waste Management. The  urbanisation has increased per capita waste generation rate from 0.44 kg/day in 2001 to 0.5 kg/day in 2011. This increase was driven by changing lifestyles and rising purchasing power of the urban population.

Since independence, many such campaigns have ended up achieving only numerical targets without achieving the sustainability of those numbers and further maintenance responsibilities. For instance, toilets built without water connection are less likely to have an impact on sanitation practices. As per a 2010 World Bank Report, over Rs. 18,500 crore was spent in the last two decades to build about 70 million toilets in India. But Census 2011 indicated that about 60 per cent of the population still defecate in the open. Looking at this trend, Iit is likely that the present Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will also go the same way. A Bengaluru-based NGO estimates that about 30 per cent of the Corporate Social Responsibility funds in 2015-16 have been earmarked for building toilets but will it make a difference on the ground is a question one needs to ponder at this moment.

What is required for change to take root is systemic change. The need of the hour is to create community ownership of such drives under local civic bodies that are accountable to the public. Such a modus operandi can sustain good sanitation practices. In another word, it is time to empower the civic bodies like ULBs.

Though the 74th  Constitutional Amendment Act talked about the need to empower the ULBs, it did not lay down the revenue base for local bodies. What needs to change is the power to determine the revenue base from the State Governments to the ULBs. Since many States have not yet transferred functions, funds and functionaries, one wonders what the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will achieve beyond the hype when the public administrative machinery is not empowered as intended.

Coming back to the question of civic amenities in Guwahati, even though the Swachh Bharat overall ranking of the city is 51 among 476 cities of the country, the picture is still not satisfactory. Again, as per the Census figures of Assam, the percentage of households with proper sanitation facilities changed from 64.6 per cent in 2001 to just 64.9 per cent in 2011 –a dismal figure. It highlights that the Total Sanitation Campaign in the State was far behind its target. Against its own departmental target of the Public Health Engineering Department (PHE) -- a nodal agency in implementing the campaign, only 78 per cent of BPL households, 44.22 per cent of APL households, 66.47 per cent of IHHL project, 29.86 per cent of Sanitary Complexes and 66.15 per cent of Anganwadi Toilet projects could be covered under the Campaign. The State though showed an impressive success rate of achieving 98.03 per cent in installing toilets in school. However, under the Campaign, more than 11 lakh households in Assam remained to be covered.

No wonder then, the Evaluation Study on Total Sanitation Campaign, published by the Planning Commission in May, 2013, rated Assam as poor in terms of performance. Importantly, the study pointed at the lack of involvement of civic bodies in the Campaign. It found “no significant role of the block level agencies.” The study said, “In 84 per cent of the cases, Gram Panchayats were involved in various degrees; they were implementing agencies only in 39 per cent cases. Village Water and Sanitation Committees (VWSCs), the lowest level agencies at the village level, existed in 65 per cent of the Gram Panchayats. Their maximum contribution was felt in dealing with the financial aspect like opening bank accounts, collection of tariff for operation and maintenance. But their performance was very poor in the activities like awareness, procurement of construction materials, etc.”

It is pertinent to make a constructive historical enquiry while discussing the administrative competency in implementing such social development projects in a State like Assam. The British rulers used a customised version of feudal administrative structure they inherited from the Ahom period for their simple colonial interest of collecting revenue and establishing law and order so as to support the tea and mineral industries. The process of indigenous capital accumulation could not even take off; leave aside consolidation as seen in certain pockets of British India. After independence, a complex inward-looking national economy had been developed under the tutelage of Indian ‘state capitalism’ ratified by the historical Bombay Plan. As a result, inadequate capital formation along with other national liabilities like an inefficient public sector, unreformed public administration and rampant corruption formed a Central fund dependent ‘underdevelopment trap’ in the geographically peripheral State. The nexus of vested interest groups misappropriating public money has always been a socio-economically powerful force in the State’s politics which safeguards the trap. As collateral to this safeguard, sizable share of the funding for different socio-economic schemes also gets trickled down to the electoral cadres like a feudal hierarchy.  In such a scenario, even the best socio-economic development campaign can be a disaster.

In this backdrop, it is imperative to delineate the purview of such a campaign so as to entail the broader administrative process and incorporate historical learning from implementation of different schemes. Otherwise, such campaigns may not recognise the interaction of social, historical and institutional factors which determine economic outcomes. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, without due emphasis on instituting a comprehensive livelihood management system, may therefore, remain a mere sloganeering like “Garibi Hatao”; the poverty alleviation programme without having any recourse to a macro-economically sustainable development process.

The postulation framed as “India’s dirtiness cannot be disregarded due to its poverty and many poor societies are cleaner than India” may have a psychic appeal to the burgeoning middle class. But the question is, is the Indian middle class an exception from the attitudinal inheritance from the colonial legacy and caste hegemony? Further, the archetypical picture of grubby streets with mountains of garbage right outside the clean houses in India portrays the wide public-private divide. The colonial legacy further segmented the society which traditionally adhered to their family, community and caste groups without a shared public space. The attitude towards manual labour has been entrenched deeply in the Indian society for a variety of socio-cultural reasons. It cannot acknowledge the artisan’s hand work as equally dignified in labour as mental work. This, in turn, has also led to lack of professionalism and quality in the performance of manual cleanliness tasks.

By no means, cleanliness campaigns in India can be secluded from poverty given that the poverty ratios is of 21 per cent in urban and 34 per cent in rural India (Planning Commission 2009-10). Widespread poverty is a historical reality in India. According to the revised methodology of World Bank 2011, India, with 17.5 per cent of the world's population, have 20.6 per cent share of the world’s poorest. In fact, poverty alleviation should be the most testing cleanliness campaign in the path of humanitarian pursuit for sustainable development.

Presently, the popular narrative seems to be that economic growth rather than the so-called “welfare” schemes can lead to poverty alleviation. Poverty can be tamed by engaging the population in the growth process. But contrary to competing alternatives, social spending should be an integral part of the growth strategy. It should not only cause welfare of the population but also provide employment with positive multiplier effects and expand the domestic market. Instead of abandoning the pivotal and potential socio-economic programmes for rural employment, health, education and food security, it is crucial to operationalise an object-oriented implementation mechanism free from the hegemonic nexus of misappropriation of public money. It is much beyond just a matter of trapping the CSR funds. The output growth through large capital can deliver only when an effective social security system is in place. Otherwise, how will GDP growth suffice to meet the developmental goal?

Poverty, social injustice and corruption – the miscellanies to the Indian growth path, have fattened the squalid biological envelope in the civic and physical environment. It will be a fantasy to think of cleaning the biosphere without putting in place an effective civic administration. Photo-ops and hype should not camouflage the need to have administrative reforms which is imperative to the success of any cleanliness drive. It is also important to note that such reforms are required to have proper civic amenities and thereby to protect the rights of every citizen.

Therefore, if Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has to truly succeed, it has to be kept in mind that there cannot be any alternative to an accountable public administration and a social security system.           

Indrajit Borah

( Indrajit Borah is a freelance writer based in Delhi. He takes special interest in public policy analysis. He can be reached at indrajitborah@yahoo.co.in. )


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