In the midst of the political chest-thumping and finger-pointing on patriotism and nationalism, a positive development with a far-reaching impact on the future of the country has not got enough attention. An independent verification of the Swachh Bharat Gramin, the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2018-19, has shown that 96.5 per cent of households in rural India which have access to toilets are actually using them. The number has gone up by three percentage points in just a year.
The pace of providing access to toilets has been phenomenal. About 93 per cent households have toilets today as against 77 per cent in 2017-18. The status of the 90.7 per cent of the villages previously declared open-defecation free has been reconfirmed. This is also a huge testimony to the fact that social change is here to stay. Considering that rural sanitation coverage in India was less than 40 per cent in 2014, the cracking speed only points to one thing: The combination of political will and executive intent can make the impossible possible.
For far too long, India had failed to realise the import of a basic issue that was directly connected to the health of its people. Successive governments did little to make household sanitation a priority and society continued to be influenced by a regressive mindset over using toilets.
The success of the Swachh Bharat initiative shows how determined leadership and coordinated action can motivate people to adopt change. The issues of cleanliness, hygiene and healthy habits have been infused into the societal psyche. Government data can be put to question as many other recent surveys have shown lower compliance rates. A rural North India study by Regional Institute of Compassionate Economics revealed about 44 per cent people still defecated in the open in MP, UP, Bihar and Rajasthan. But it is still an improvement from 2014 when the figure was at 70 per cent. The target of October 2019 for an open-defecation free India might seem too ambitious, but there is a distinct behavioural shift in the people. And India can only move forward.