India’s New Sanitation Initiative

On October 2, Prime Minister Modi announced the Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, Mission – an undertaking to ensure that India is litter free and that every house has access to a toilet by 2019. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) will release $32 billion to construct 120 million toilets across the country. This announcement has put India on the road once again towards tackling one of its most intractable problems: open defecation.

In the past

Providing access to sanitation facilities, especially in rural areas, has been a hallmark of government policy for decades. Starting with the Central Rural Sanitation Program in 1986, ambitious plans like the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP), Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA), Bharat Nirman and the ongoing Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), have regularly been put in place, though with little impact. India has seen a tremendous increase in population since 2001, contributing to an increase in open air defecation over the past decade despite the many government programs.

The new program

Under Prime Minister Modi, the existing Nirmal Bharat Mission will be restructured into SBM, which will be divided into Swachh Bharat Mission (Rural) and Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). A Swachh Bharat Vidyalaya campaign focusing on schools will also run in parallel. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation will directly oversee operations in both rural and urban India. The Department of School Education and the Women and Child Development Ministry will have responsibility for the construction of school and Anganwadi (community) toilets.

Although past governments have taken up the issue of sanitation, this is the first time it has been brought to center stage by a prime minister. The key difference between SBM and previous programs can be found in the government’s efforts to attract partners to supplement public sector investment.

Aware that the sanitation problem cannot be solved by the government alone, Prime Minster Modi has actively sought to encourage wide participation in the mission. By setting up the the Bharat Kosh Fund and designating any private sector contributions as CSR spending under the Companies Act, the prime minister has managed to attract substantial funding, considerably reducing the burden on his government. The government also plans to offer tax benefits on these contributions as a further incentive. Both private and public companies including Vedanta, Tata Consultancy Services, Bharti Foundation, Dabur, Unitech and GAIL, have pledged support to the mission. Industry bodies like CII have also committed to mobilising efforts to provide sanitation facilities in schools.

To get citizens involved in the mission, an online platform has been launched. Citizens will be able to share initiatives, challenges, and successes, and give collective input to the Ministry of Urban Development. The community already has more than 210,000 registered members. The prime minister has engaged Facebook and other social media platforms to assist the government in the Clean India mobile application. Several independent app developers have also come up with ideas to support the mission using mobile technologies.

According to an official statement, the Union Consumer Affairs Ministry has written to all voluntary consumer bodies as well as non-profit organizations, encouraging them to actively participate in the Swachh Bharat Mission. UNICEF has already offered its assistance to implement programs in rural India.

Assistance has also started pouring in from abroad. Germany will provide $5 million, and the services of international experts, to help the Ministry of Urban Development to implement sanitation programs in urban areas of the country. USAID has pledged $20 million to an Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene alliance and will partner with the Indian public and private sectors to demonstrate innovative water and sanitation initiatives in urban areas while promoting hygiene behavior.

The criticism

While there has been substantial progress in installing mechanisms and processes to facilitate the Swachh Bharat Mission, many feel that too much emphasis has been laid on the construction of toilets, and that giving subsidies to build toilets is not enough to create systemic change. According to figures from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, India has spent over $3 billion on constructing toilets across the country since 1986. Over 97 million household toilets have been constructed since 2001 alone under these schemes. Critics argue that past investments in toilet construction have not generated a significant drop in open defecation.  


Past sanitation programs in India have been characterised by a lack of follow-through. While the success of the new program remains to be seen, the focus on efficiency is encouraging. In order to monitor various activities under SBM, the Union Urban Development Ministry is putting together a management information system. Using this system, all states and urban habitations will be able to upload information regarding construction of household, public and community toilets along with solid waste management and awareness generation activities. This will help the Prime Minister’s office keep track of the mission’s progress and enable the centre to release funds and implement programs more efficiently.

While the new government’s multi-stakeholder approach and its focus on efficiency are crucial to making India open defecation free, it remains to be seen if the mission will be able to overcome the hurdles that have stymied previous campaigns.