The Swachh Bharat Yatra

, Cover Story

‘The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) transcended  above being just a government programme, and become a people’s movement’

Over the last five years, the people of India have rallied behind the clarion call of the Prime Minister and have collectively changed habits that they had held on to for centuries. India has witnessed a sanitation revolution – a movement, of the people, by the people and for the people. This massive people’s movement is arguably the largest behavior change movement of all time.

In just five years, India has gone from being responsible for over half of the world’s open defecation, to becoming the world’s leading sanitation champion. Since 2014, over 10 crore rural toilets have been built and over 55 crore people have stopped defecating in the open. But the real success of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is that it transcended above being just a government program, and become a people’s movement, a leading example for participatory development. It has shown that transformative change can be achieved if each and every individual contributes towards the revolution. From recruiting lakhs of swachhagrahis to spread the message of sanitation, to helping thousands of rani mistris break gender stereotypes and construct toilets, to having the Swachh Bharat logo on every new currency note in the country – SBM went far beyond the mandate of just one ministry.


The SBM has had a positive impact on the life, health, wealth and dignity of rural communities. Amplifying these benefits is the impact SBM’s has on the market economy and, in particular, on job creation, which is significant by itself.The massive improvement in India’s sanitation coverage has resulted in direct employment opportunities for masons, labourers and industries involved in supplying sanitary ware, and indirect opportunities for several associated sectors. A recent study by UNICEF has estimated that the SBM has resulted in a creation of over 75 lakh full time equivalent jobs in the past five years, and is likely to continue to create more jobs in the future. In another study, UNICEF estimated that in an ODF village in India, each household saves an average of about `50,000 per year on account of avoided medical costs, time savings and lives saved. World Health Organisation estimated that the Swachh Bharat Mission has saved three lakh lives already.

The SBM has contributed significantly to the country’s productivity. SBM’s impact on reducing malnutrition had been studied through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation health impact study, which reported that in Open Defecation Free (ODF) areas, there were 32 per cent fewer cases of diarrhoea among children, 15 per cent fewer cases of stunting, and 32 per cent fewer cases of women with below normal BMI. Better nutrition and better health for women and children directly contributes to higher school attendance and improved learning outcomes.

What the last five years have proved beyond doubt is the importance of collective action when it comes to public health. The rapid improvements in sanitation across the country have had a positive spin-off on various other sectors of development as well. The effectiveness of other flagship programmes of the Government like Integrated Child Development Services, Skill India, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, Make in India, among others, has increased manifold simply by improving the nutrition intake capacity of children and improving overall productivity. Ensuring that the SBM bases itself as everyone’s business, the Prime Minister himself set sanitation at the centre of the national discourse, comfortably making its way into everyone’s consciousness. Compared to pre-2014, every citizen of the country today is much more aware about the once shunned topic of open defecation and toilets. The 2019 study by BMGF on the assessment of SBM’s behaviour change communication gave us a number to put that in context: since 2014, the average rural Indian was reached by SBM messaging over 3,000 times. That’s almost twice a day every day for four and a half years!

The SBM is now focusing heavily on its sustainability and ensuring that no one is left behind, as it actively moves to the next level – ODF Plus. ODF Plus is the broader goal of overall cleanliness in India’s villages. The key factors in becoming ODF Plus are ODF-Sustainability, Solid Waste Management (biodegradable and plastic) and Liquid Waste Management (Grey Water and Fecal Sludge Management), as required. A village would be considered ODF Plus if it continues to sustain its ODF status and safely manages its solid and liquid waste.

To reorient and institutionalise the capacities of members of panchayati raj institutions and swachhagrahis towards ODF Plus, a pool of skilled field trainers are being created in every district. These trainers will further build the capabilities of around 11 lakh village-level functionaries (beginning with 2.5 lakh sarpanches, 2.5 lakh panchayat secretaries, about six lakh swachhagrahis and masons) with adequate knowledge on keeping the sanitation momentum soaring ahead and moving from ODF to ODF Plus.

On August 15, 2014, we witnessed a defining moment in India’s modern history – a tipping point which led the country to a sanitation revolution, and on August 15, 2019, we witnessed one for water. The Prime Minister announced the government’s goal of achieving piped water supply for all households by 2024. The government has also taken a momentous step by creating a new Ministry – the Ministry of Jal Shakti by merging of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation with and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the stage is set for an integrated approach to managing water more efficiently, preventing its wastage and maximising its utility. This Ministry is working towards bringing piped water supply to all households by 2024, with mandatory source sustainability and grey water reuse and recharge measures for an integrated and holistic approach to water and sanitation. This is being done through the Jal Jeevan Mission, an ambitious programme designed along the lines of the SBM as a ‘Jan Andolan, a people’s movement, with integrated water demand and supply management at the grassroots.

The SBM is a shot in the arm for the world striving to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a fascinating story of political leadership like no other, harnessing the power of the people. It is a story of what is possible how the people of a nation, inspired by a leader, can come together and achieve the seemingly unachievable.

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