Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: An ineffective remedy

Prakhar Misra is a Chevening Scholar reading for a Masters in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. His article has been rewarded with a cash prize of £100 for the winning entry submitted to Oxford Policy Blog in 2016-17.


In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi pledged towards building a cleaner India. To this end, in his characteristic grandeur manner, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) was announced. SBA aimed at raising a consciousness amongst urban dwellers towards keeping their surroundings cleaner. For the rural citizenry, it coupled this objective with the idea of eliminating open-defecation by 2019.

A couple of years since this was announced, SBA has been lost amidst the din around other controversial policies that this government has enforced. The effectiveness of SBA is certainly under question, most of all raising suspicions about the long-term impact of the campaign.


Over 626 million people, 59% of the world population defecates in the open in India. The government, though, sees this problem as one of lack of access of toilets in the country. It concludes that if enough people have a toilet, they wouldn’t defecate in the open. To that end, it has vociferously started building toilets all over India. By its estimates, 31,250,283 toilets (and counting) have been built till now. On the same webpage, it shows the rise in the number of ‘open-defecation free’ (ODF) villages in India therefore implying a causal relationship between the too. But, that may not be the real issue to begin with therefore creating serious loopholes in its claims of ODF villages across India.

Firstly, defecation is probably one of the more personal acts an individual takes in their daily schedules. Thus, to assume that the lack of a certain facility is why the individual is compromising on health would be rather immature, especially in this day and age. But, even if we were to take that as a given, why didn’t the previous governments think of this?

Actually, they did. In fact, the first such intervention was made in 1986 under the name of Central Rural Sanitation Program which focused on building toilets. But, they gradually realized that the toilets were going unused. So, in 1999, Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was launched which gave subsidies of INR 3200 to BPL cardholders to build toilets. It also aimed at bringing about a change in behavior in people in order make use of the toilets but poor implementation led to little success. In 2012 again, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan was launched which increased the subsidies to build toilets to Rs 5500 per household. It also included first time APL communities in this scheme.

Since 1986, for more than 30 years, various Indian governments have been doing exactly the same thing under different banners that the current government is pursuing. But, toilet construction hasn’t worked because it isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the culture of open-defecation (OD). A report by the Princeton University says this:

“Further research be undertaken to understand the social, cultural, and behavioral drivers of OD. Without acknowledging the heterogeneity of latrine use preferences, executing large-scale behavioral interventions will fail to increase demand for latrines.”

This is just one of the many other suggestions that the report points out.

But, that’s not the only problem with the campaign. There is also an issue with how individuals are being coerced to use toilets without really keeping in mind long-term impact. Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India passed a bill to not allow people without toilets with flushes to contest elections for the local Panchayat. Similarly, in a village in the state of Chattisgarh, families are being denied food by a unilateral diktat because they don’t have toilets at home. In fact, in the same state a person was brutally beaten and stabbed to death because he didn’t have enough money to build a toilet.

This isn’t the way in which India will become open-defecation free because the moment focus from this scheme will shift, people will return to their original habits. Forcing people isn’t the solution. The approach of Community led Total Sanitation (CLTS) needs to be followed and an organic change is the only thing could ever be long lasting.

The bigger question, however, is how does the government qualify a village to be ‘open defecation free’? The Government of India guidelines for ODF verification list two objective parameters:

  1. No visible faeces found in the environment/village;
  2. Every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of faeces.

While one could question these objective parameters themselves, the real problem lies with the progress achieved till date. Given that Sanitation is a state-subject, verification is delocalized to the Gram Sabha to measure the status of ODF in villages on the above 2 indicators. On this only 17 out of the 686 districts have been listed as ODF so far. Verifying ODF status is difficult and maybe filled with problems of itself. The Nirmal Gram Puraskar launched by the previous government to award communities who had achieved ODF status admittedly faced the same problem of verification. The current government has allowed state governments to include Gram Sabhas, various third party organizations and even independent journalists to be a part of such verification processes. The verdict of success of this method is still awaited.

SBA: Urban

In urban India, the focus of SBA is on bringing about awareness in people residing in cities to keep their surroundings clean and tidy. Simple things like using a dustbin, not spitting on the road or even segregating the garbage are advertised on hoardings across cities. But, does this really help? The classic game of Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that such advertising makes a minute dent, if at all, to have people in urban India act more responsibly.

In a Prisoner’s dilemma game, two prisoners are held in different rooms and interrogated separately. Given that none of the two will admit to the crime even if they have committed, each has the option of testifying against the other or remaining silent. They accrue benefits based on the trade-offs in the image below.


The minimum jail sentence is of one year, when both keep quiet. So, that should be the ideal choice. Each prisoner should keep quiet to achieve maximum benefit. But the game creates a situation where one person’s benefit depends on what another person will do. Therefore, the actions of that person will depend on what he thinks the other will do. The dominant strategy to play this game, for both players, would be to confess about the other. This is the ‘minimum risk’ situation. They receive five years sentence, which is more than one year but less than ten years. Thus, even though not ideal, both players will choose to confess and get a five year sentence vs keeping quiet and going in jail only for a year.

The idea is lack of trust between the two prisoners. Unless they know for sure that the other will keep quiet, they will not. This is the exact same situation of throwing garbage on the road in cities and towns. Unless, people are convinced that everybody else will also not throw garbage, they not go to the extent of changing our habits. The dominant thought in their heads would be that if they take care but the others throw garbage, then the whole purpose of a ‘swachh bharat’ or ‘clean India’ is lost. Thus, it makes no sense for any individual to go to the extent without actually believing that others will too. This lack of trust is furthered when state machineries of garbage collection go on strike. In Delhi, amidst a duel between the Centre and state governments, garbage was left on the streets and the stink was unbearable. In Mumbai as well, landfills are being overused leading to venomous pollutants intoxicating the city air and affecting lives of people. In such an environment, it is really hard for SBA to gain any traction in making people more responsible towards their own surroundings.

The second problem is an additional ‘Swachh Bharat Cess’ that the government charges people as an indirect tax. Even though it is low, this signals to individuals that by paying the tax they have done their bit thus absolving them of their responsibility. Accountability immediately shifts from citizens to the government and suddenly it becomes the responsibility of the government to use the money wisely. Clearly, this doesn’t help in building a consciousness and causing a behavioral change in urban areas of India.


The Swachh Bharat Scheme needs a relook. It needs to be assessed from its very ethos and the government needs to bring about a fundamental change in the strategic and the operational aspects of this program. Otherwise, it will fail to create a dent that it so ambitiously set out to do. There might be some data points to cloak its fault lines, but in a real sense- it isn’t being effective at improving peoples lives.


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