Swachh Bharat Mission: Game-changing India’s battle against Covid-19

“The SBM has truly evolved into a people-driven movement where every step that we take is matched and taken five steps ahead by citizens, who have become our partners”, ascertains an enthusiastic Naveen Kumar Agarwal, Director, Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) in conversation with Poulami Chakraborty of BW Businessworld. Excerpts Below

How has been the past few months for you as an administrator of a key government project as Swachh Bharat Mission?

In the last few years, the SBM-U has grown into a true ‘Jan Andolan’. This has been our experience in the last few months too, where any initiative that we introduce gets taken up enthusiastically by citizens. I think the SBM has truly evolved into a people-driven movement where every step that we take is matched and taken five steps ahead by citizens, who have become our partners. Knowing that we will have citizens walk with us in every step of the way, gave us the confidence to propose the next phase of Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) which has a far larger mandate. 

Q. How has leveraging Swachh Bharat Mission helped in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?

The importance of sanitation and effective solid waste management has been further brought to the fore, in view of the COVID crisis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the present situation could have been much worse had it not been for the critical part that SBM-U has played in the last six and a half years to ensure a high degree of cleanliness and sanitation in urban areas. Urban areas have been the most affected and by far emerging as resilient to the pandemic. Efficient measures in the field of sanitation and solid waste management have been instrumental in breaking the chain of COVID-19 in urban areas. For example, the robust and uninterrupted system of door-to-door collection of waste even during the lockdown not only ensured that segregated waste (including bio-medical waste from households) was being collected but eased life especially for the elderly and vulnerable who were stuck at home. Our city authorities were on the job 24x7 sanitizing all corners of the city, arranging for hand-washing facilities especially in low-income settlements, and ensuring proper treatment and disposal of waste collected from households. 

On the digital front, we repurposed our hugely popular grievance redressal platform, Swachhata App (with over 1.7 crore users) in order to enable citizens to get their COVID-related complaints also redressed by their respective ULBs. Alongside, our communications team undertook several campaigns to promote COVID-appropriate behavior.

The most important concern for us has been the safety and well-being of our sanitation workers – the frontline soldiers in our fight against the deadly virus. We issued an advisory in this regard around the provision of personal protective equipment (PPEs), health check ups and payment of regular wages for sanitation workers, even if they were unable to report for work due to the lockdown. It was heartening to see the services of sanitation workers being duly recognized by both authorities and citizens, something which was long overdue for them. There were stories from several parts of India such as Nabha in Punjab, Prayagraj (Uttar Pradesh), Chennai and Madurai, and many more where sanitation workers were being showered with flowers and provided with food and ration.  

Q. What changes did you observe in the habits of citizens for a better liveability? What further changes are required for keeping it up to optimum?

I think we can safely say that thanks to the massive Abhiyan that has been running for the last 6 years or so, the concept of ‘swachhata’ has now occupied a strong mind-space among citizens. A sense of pride around keeping their cities clean is becoming common in them. Concepts such as source segregation, home composting, etc., which were barely present earlier, have now started becoming the norm. People are starting to realize that they need to take equal responsibility, along with the government, to keep their neighborhoods and cities clean. 

Citizens have now become more aspirational and started demanding improved services from their Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). A few years ago, citizens were only concerned with keeping their homes clean- NIMBY or the ‘Not in My Backyard’ phenomenon was common when it came to citizens’ attitude towards waste. This has undergone a massive shift. Citizens today are taking responsibility for the cleanliness of their neighborhoods and their cities, and they are also holding city authorities as well as each other accountable when it comes to ‘Swachhata’. This has definitely been possible due to the focus on sanitation and waste management from the highest levels of political leadership. Today, ‘Swachhata’ has become a topic of discussion across the socio-economic spectrum. 

However, social and behavior change is a long-term effort and likely to slip back if not sustained over a long period.  Hence, we will now need to strengthen our efforts in involving citizens in every aspect of cleanliness – be it segregating their waste into multiple fractions, proactively giving feedback about sanitation services (for instance, state of public toilets), being aware of the necessity for regular desludging of their household septic tanks, among others. At the Mission level, we will need to strengthen the entire chain of liquid and solid waste management- by focusing on maintaining sanitation infrastructures (community and public toilets/urinals), complementing citizens’ efforts at source segregation by providing adequate waste processing and recycling infrastructure, while simultaneously continuing to invest time, effort and resources in making the Mission more citizen-centric and inclusive through direct community engagement with the help of educational institutions, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), etc. 

Q. The government has come out with various initiatives to stop the practice of hazardous cleaning by scaling mechanical solutions for urban sanitation. Would you please elaborate on various such initiatives? 

In addition to the legal framework that already exists (e.g. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act), the Government of India has been taking initiatives to introduce mechanized solutions for hazardous cleaning, as well as rehabilitating sanitation workers by building their capacities – both ability-wise and financially, through the National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC), to take up alternative livelihood options. At the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), a Technology Challenge was conducted two years ago, where a number of innovative and cost-effective mechanized solutions by organizations across the country were identified and felicitated. MoHUA has also been working with States/UTs and ULBs to set up Responsible Sanitation Authorities (RSAs) at the District level and Sanitation Response Units at ULB level to tackle/prevent hazardous entry fatalities and incidents. 

However, despite these initiatives, recurring episodes of human fatalities (240 deaths in the last three years alone) among those engaged in cleaning of septic tanks and sewers, typically belonging to the economically disadvantaged and marginalized communities of our society, continue to be a matter of concern. The major cause for these unfortunate deaths has been a lack of awareness among citizens (service seekers) and informal/formal workers (service providers) about the risk to life while undertaking hazardous entry into sewers and septic tanks.

To address this, MoHUA launched the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge (SSC) on the occasion of World Toilet Day (19 November) last year. The objective of the SSC is to encourage more cities and towns to adopt mechanized cleaning of sewers and septic tanks as a practice and act as lighthouses for other cities in this regard. 

Q. How have these initiatives been successful in enhancing urban sanitation?

As a result of these initiatives, we are witnessing that states/UTs and ULBs are beginning to invest more time and effort in mechanical solutions, and coming up with innovative solutions to tackle the menace of hazardous entry. Moreover, we are seeing a gradual shift in the mindset of citizens when it comes to their awareness about the issue of hazardous cleaning and their sense of responsibility towards sewer and septic tank workers. We are very hopeful that in the next few years, fatalities arising from hazardous entry would become a thing of the past.

Q. Will the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge (SSC) affect the job opportunities of the sanitation workers? How is this challenge tackled?

The SSC is aimed at ensuring the safety of sanitation workers and ensuring that henceforth, no worker needlessly suffers fatalities or dies due to hazardous entry. This is being ensured through a multi-pronged approach: 

  • Mandating the use of mechanized cleaning solutions in larger cities (where a majority of these fatalities occur), provision of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and safety gear to protect those tasked with entering sewers and septic tanks for cleaning. 
  • Identifying all informal workers engaged through contractors or individually and registering them in the ULB database, and ensuring their integration into the formal workforce, wherever possible. 
  • Training and capacity building of ULB staff and workers (including the identified informal workers). This 12-hour intensive training spread over a span of 2-3 days is combined with theoretical and practical sessions. These trainings have been specially designed in partnership with Sector Skills Council for Green Jobs and National Safai Karmachari Finance Development Corporation (NSKFDC) for informal sanitation workers who are working in the field of sewer and septic tanks cleaning. Till date, 2000+ informal workers and 600+ formal workers have already completed training in 40+ cities across Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. There are plans to train 10000+ informal workers & safaimitras by April 2021.
  • Creating awareness on the subject of hazardous cleaning and citizens’ role in preventing the same through a range of innovative campaigns such as the Suraksha Nahi toh Safai Nahi.
  • Establishing due systems and processes in place- for example, ULBs have to ensure that there is periodic desludging of septic tanks in households under their purview and have adequate infrastructure to undertake mechanized cleaning.  A very effective tool at our end has also been the operationalization of a common helpline number 14420 across cities- a one-stop shop complaint redressal mechanism for citizens around cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. This is backed by a robust call centre and portal tracking mechanism to ensure that no calls from citizens for service or complaint go unattended. The aim is to minimize manual intervention in the grievance redressal and feedback process through this tracking system. Over 200 cities out of 246 participating in the challenge have operationalized the national helpline number 14420 for sanitation related service or complaint request from citizens.
  • MoHUA is also working with organizations such as NSKFDC to provide soft loan options and better livelihood opportunities for such workers who might wish to become entrepreneurs in these cleaning businesses. To facilitate this, MoHUA has been helping states/ULBs to organize ‘loan melas’ by mobilizing all key stakeholders engaged in this exercise, viz. NSKFDC, channel partners (banks) of NSKFDC, machine manufacturers/exhibitors, along with ULBs and their workers.  Approximately, 5,700 workers have attended these loan melas in the presence of around 600 ULB officials, and the first of the loans have already been sanctioned to a worker by the bank.

SSC can become a very effective platform to not only improve livelihoods of our Safaimitras but also to give them a dignified life by freeing them from the stigma associated with cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. In fact, we are working on the design of a very special uniform for these Safaimitras which will further give them a stronger sense of identity and pride in the work that they do. 

 Q. Under the second phase of Swachh Bharat Mission unveiled in the Union Budget 2021, the government has once again emphasized the need to focus on complete faecal sludge management and waste-water treatment, among others. Please elaborate on this.

The second phase of SBM-U announced in the budget proposes to tackle the entire chain of solid and liquid waste management, not only to sustain the outcomes achieved in the first phase but also to address the other remaining challenge. Specifically, in the case of liquid waste management, the major challenges were in terms of ensuring the functionality of the constructed community and public toilets, as well as also ensuring, through adequate forward integration, that no untreated fecal sludge or wastewater gets discharged into the open environment.

The AMRUT Mission (and going forward – the Jal Jeevan Mission-U) is focusing on the liquid waste management of 1 lakh plus cities. The SBM-U will be focusing on complete wastewater treatment including fecal sludge management for all cities with less than 1 lakh population, so that by the end of the Mission, all cities become ODF++ as per MoHUA protocol, and 50% of these cities achieve Water+ status.

Cleanliness is a daily activity, irrespective of seasons. Hence, our efforts for the coming summer months will be on continuing the daily job of keeping our cities clean.