A perspective on sustainable governance and Swacchh Bharat Mission

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The sanitation problem in India cannot be understated. While decades of sustained economic growth have made India the seventh-largest economy in the world today, the provision of public services such as water, sanitation, solid waste management, and drainage continue to be a challenge. A lot of programmes have been started in the past decades, but none of them could fully tackle the water management and sanitation in a holistic and effective manner. With an urgent need to re-energise and remodel its approach, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014. Also the Sustainable Development Goal 6 “represents a significant deepening of ambition, aiming to ‘achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation’ by 2030”[1]. Today, India has a historic opportunity to address the problem of sanitation in its entirety using the momentum generated by SBM to realise the ambition of sustainable sanitation, one of the prime goals of SDGs.

SBM brought sanitation and water “on the table”. Increasingly projects and NGO are settling for improving sanitation. Campaigns and events like Global Citizen point citizens to realize the urge for a Swachh Bharat. GOI creates various policies in and around the WASH umbrella, not only toilet building activities but also integration of sectors like menstrual hygiene management (MHM Guidelines), corporate social responsibility (Swachh Kosh) or WASH in school activities (Swachh Vidyalaya).

Though there is no shortage of policy level recommendations at the central level, their impact and infiltration at the ground level is very limited.  To create sustainability, these policies need to work together with the implementation of its programs.  There is dire need for thought leadership to move this forward.  Policy advocacy is not merely the creation of laws and regulations; it must create an enabling environment for sustainable change.  Sanitation also needs good governance. UNESCO understands Governance as an act.

“… to refer to structures and processes that are designed to ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, rule of law, stability, equity and inclusiveness, empowerment, and broad-based participation. Governance also represents the norms, values and rules of the game through which public affairs are managed in a manner that is transparent, participatory, inclusive and responsive. Governance therefore can be subtle and may not be easily observable.  In a broad sense, governance is about the culture and institutional environment in which citizens and stakeholders interact among themselves and participate in public affairs. It is more than the organs of the government.”[2]

The need is to reach these solutions to the last mile with an efficient governance and effective implementation. The right governance system and a model to help address “Produce to Use” strategy is important. This process is indeed not an easy one, but efforts and motivation are the first step towards achieving a “Swachh Bharat”. However, a “one size fits all” didn´t, does and will not work in the Indian context. To tackle the problem of the last mile, a closer look in the Governance body and process must be taken forward. Some important areas that should be addressed are explained here.

Integration of the full water and sanitation cycle

The image of sanitation should move beyond “going to the toilet”. Since SBM started in 2014, the focus from governance has been construction of toilets. With the current mission, India runs the risk of neglecting the whole wastewater cycle. Sanitation is a complex topic that has significant impact on health, nutrition, security, environment and human rights. Per the World Bank 47% of children could be saved from diarrhoea if sanitation systems would be offered broadly.[3]

Understanding sanitation often does not include the big picture of sanitation. Once a toilet is constructed, it should be maintained, the disposal of human waste has to be safely managed and people actually have to use the toilet regularly. On top of that, sanitation also includes the knowledge of hygiene such as handwashing activities and menstrual hygiene actions. Sewage systems, on-site systems like septic tanks and other solutions need prioritization. The conjunction from sanitation to drinking water is not applicable. SBM has set numbered goals in toilet construction and ODF, which are handy to monitor. But it lacks the full understanding and implementation of policies that focus on the full cycle. “This implies paying attention not only to wastewater conveyance and treatment, but also to less visible concerns like poor construction of on-site systems and lack of operations and maintenance”[4]. The Shit Flow Diagram (SFD) tool is a good visualization for explaining the whole cycle. This leads to the question of how sustainable the current governance/policy of SBM is.

Sustainable Governance and long term vision

SBM with the deadline of 2019 tries to become ODF. But what comes after that deadline? What if all the toilets constructed now will not be in use any more? The need for sustainable solutions should be taken seriously, not only on the environmental perspective but also for economic reasons and financing of sanitation project. Per the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA), and the members of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council as the “Bellagio Principles for Sustainable Sanitation” during its 5th Global Forum in November 2000: Human dignity, quality of life and environmental security at household level should be at the centre of any sanitation approach.

  1. In line with good governance principles, decision making should involve participation of all stakeholders, especially the consumers and providers of services.
  2. Waste should be considered resource, and its management should be holistic and form part of integrated water resources, nutrient flow and waste management processes.
  3. The domain in which environmental sanitation problems are resolved should be kept to the minimum practicable size (household, neighbourhood, community, town, district, catchments, city)[5]

Sustainability in sanitation the following points should be implemented for sustainable sanitation: Waste should be considered resource, and its management should be holistic and form part of integrated water resources, nutrient flow and waste management processes. A long-term vision on sanitation and drinking water after 2019 should be published.

Capacity building and effective governance

The capacity and resources for sanitation are limited. Especially in urban areas, regulations need to be implemented for proper waste disposal. A “one size fits all” approach is not working.[6] Communication between local bodies and higher institutions is missing. Local communities don’t often communicate their needs to the political level. Effective governance means to create rules and norms which fit local realities. This means also a democraticinclusive approach, where voices of the beneficiaries are considered. The legislative framework shifts the major responsibility of sanitation and wastewater management to state and/or local bodies. National agendas on sanitation influence the various state sanitation agendas. Especially financial support mainly comes from national ministries. On the national level, the Ministry for Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) mainly leads the SBM for rural areas, whereas the Ministry for Urban Development (MoUD) established an urban SBM. WASH activities like Swachh Vidyalaya are coordinated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. If it comes to sanitation systems and local infrastructure within households, the Ministry for Housing and Urban Poverty Allevation (HUPA) takes the lead. The capacity for sanitation issues in government bodies has been implemented, but effectiveness in communication and achieving goals still is equivocal. That gives the feeling of rather impulsive actions in WASH that lack management of implementation actions, especially in local areas.

Ownership and Collaboration

Everybody does it but less people care for it. Sanitation systems tend to create the impression that you can flush and give away human waste. “Your own business” no longer is your own business when it comes to sanitation. It needs the individual to understand the scope of WASH impacts every single person has. Creating policies on national level is simply not enough to reach Swachh Bharat. “Given the scale of the challenge and India’s very disparate socio-political landscape, performance varies from State to State and even within a State. Too often we depend on an individual without making the change systemic”, Naina Lal Kidwai stated in an online discussion.[7]

Governance has to go beyond creating rules and policies towards integrating a nations citizen. That requires a sense of responsibility and taking on ownership for their own good. “The positive incentives identified for prioritisation of sanitation are necessary, but not sufficient. Peoples’ perceptions about autonomy and authority shape how they respond to incentives to prioritise sanitation”.[8] Activities on behaviour change are therefore very much needed. Creating solutions by collaboration and leveraging each other’s strength is the way forward.

In the first year of SBM, more than 5.8 million toilets were constructed in rural areas and about 1 million in urban spaces.[9] How many of them are in use? Are they maintained well? Is the waste disposed safely? Who disposed waste? All these and many more questions come up. The problem is that people expect GOI or state governments to subsidize toilet constructions, conduct workshops or set up septic tanks, but they do not plan to engage themselves. Sanitation at this level is not simply a public service. It’s a goal everybody should work on. “The successes we are seeing now are largely due to the leadership and commitment of district officials, starting with the district magistrates and collectors, chief executive officers, district coordinators, district panchayati raj officers, engineers, etc. This is laudable but needs to be institutionalised so the entire machinery in the district is oriented towards ODF – achievement and sustainability”[10]

Way Forward

Considering the momentum created by the Swachh Bharat Mission, a comprehensive governance approach should be followed that makes it possible to treat problems of access to sanitation in a more effective manner. Actions put in place should be designed to strengthen the capacities of stakeholders, establish participative and more transparent decision-making processes, and reduce tensions between stakeholders, advocacy, and so on. Above all else, ensuring adequate governance means creating a project designed to last and that can be more easily appropriated by its beneficiaries. This calls for setting up programmes to strengthen governance at the local and national levels, help to capitalize on them at the national and international levels, and contribute to international initiatives for knowledge creation, information sharing and advocacy. SBM has made available boundless opportunities for creating a mass impact and we should all, as one take this forward.


[1] Mason, N., Matoso, M., Hueso, A., 2016: Beyond political commitment to sanitation: Navigating incentives for prioritisation and course correction in Ethiopia, India and Indonesia. WaterAid

[2] UNESCO 2016: Concept of Governance: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/quality-framework/technical-notes/concept-of-governance/

[3] Pandey, K. 2014: Better sanitation key to improving children’s health: World Bank report http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/better-sanitation-key-to-improving-childrens-health-world-bank-report-43225

[4] Wankhade, K., 2015: Urban sanitation in India: key shifts in the national policy frame. International Institute for Environment and Development Vol 27(2).

[5] SuSanA Homepage: http://www.susana.org/en/about/sustainable-sanitation

[6] Sankar, U. 2016: To be or not to be a toilet: Moving away from a one size fits all approach to sanitation http://wateraidindia.in/blog/not-toilet-moving-away-one-size-fits-approach-sanitation/#comment-98

[7] SuSanA discussion Forum “On the way to clean India” August 2016 http://forum.susana.org/component/kunena/260-theme-1-policy-and-institutions/18530-policy-and-institutions–2-years-of-swacch-bharat-mission-graminrural?limit=12&start=12

[8] Mason, N., Matoso, M., Hueso, A., 2016: Beyond political commitment to sanitation: Navigating incentives for prioritisation and course correction in Ethiopia, India and Indonesia. WaterAid

[9] Sangupta, S. 2016: Usage of toilets in India is over 95 per cent, reveals new NSSO survey 14.04.2016


[10] SuSanA discussion Forum “On the way to clean India” August 2016 http://forum.susana.org/component/kunena/260-theme-1-policy-and-institutions/18530-policy-and-institutions–2-years-of-swacch-bharat-mission-graminrural?limit=12&start=12

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