While much of the conversation about the Swachh Bharat Mission has centred around the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre – thanks to its aggressive messaging about the Mission – the non-partisan energy being shown by a few state governments in this regard is truly admirable.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the states’ efforts to tackle the problem of open defecation. The Swachh Bharat Mission aims to make India Open Defecation-Free (ODF) by 2019. Interestingly, one of the states leading the race to this deadline is Kerala, currently ruled by the CPI (M)-led LDF.
The LDF government’s determination to win this race is in stark contrast to the bitter rivalries between centre and state governments of different ideological orientations. In most such cases, excuses abound about insufficient funds and support from the centre, and little changes on the ground. Recalcitrance on both sides makes most such projects fail.
The Kerala government, on the other hand, has determinedly moved over and above the Swachh Bharat Mission baselines in a project spearheaded by the Suchitwa Mission, its nodal sanitation agency, to take complete ownership of its programme against open defecation.
As of Monday, Thrissur became the first district in Kerala with all its panchayats declared ODF. Kannur is close on its heels, aiming to achieve the honour well in advance of October 2, Gandhi Jayanthi.
More significantly, while Kerala had originally looked at a deadline of March 2017 for the whole state to be declared ODF, this deadline has been advanced to November 1 for all rural areas in the state.
If Kerala achieves this target, it could well be only the second state to do so in the entire country. The only state to have already been declared completely open defecation free is Sikkim. However, Sikkim has a total population of only 6.2 lakhs, while Kerala’s population is close to 3.5 crores.
Headed by Executive Director K Vasuki, the Suchitwa Mission has been working towards the advanced deadline on a war footing.
Although Kerala has always reported a comparatively high percentage of toilet coverage in rural and urban areas, it has -until now- fallen short of the 100% coverage mark. According to reports on the Suchitwa Mission website, the task of becoming ODF involves the construction of nearly two lakh toilets across 941 gram panchayats, 32,000 toilets in urban areas and the conversion of another 60,000 toilets into sanitary toilets.
Of this, about 35% had reportedly been constructed by the end of August, and the state is now in the process of the final push to complete the remainder in rural areas within the next two months.
The Suchitwa Mission takes its November 1 deadline seriously as is seen in its comprehensive and up-to-the-minute reporting of the project with weekly, panchayat-wise and district-wise consolidations on its website.
From these reports it is possible to see, for instance, that Trivandrum district reported over 400 new toilets constructed between September 23 and 26 alone. In the same period, Kollam built over 800 new toilets, and Palakkad built around 1,700 toilets in its various panchayats.
In the recent past, the Kerala government and its bureaucracy has been seen working in tandem to achieve the ODF target within the given time-frame, with Chief Secretary SM Vijayanand pushing for the state to meet its November 1 deadline.
The government has also designated cabinet ministers to take charge and ensure that each district fulfills its ODF responsibilities. Besides, the Suchitwa Mission is also bringing other stakeholders such as the highly successful Kudumbashree Mission to take charge and consolidate the effort at local levels.
In all this, political alignments have not emerged very far in the foreground. Couched in terms such as the status of Kerala as an example for other states, the state’s efforts have aligned well with the Swachh Bharat Mission’s goals, without thereby subordinating the state’s own priorities.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.