Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swach Bharat scheme aims to eliminate open defecation by constructing toilets in every household by 2019.  No one doubts the need for the programme. Close to 48% of India’s urban population has no access to toilets. In rural areas, the number stands at 60%.

“It is an ambitious plan and definitely the need of the hour,” said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the sanitation organisation Sulabh International. “However, the government will have to do it right, which will require comprehensive planning.”

A draft proposal prepared by the ministry revealed that the project envisages building 20 million toilets by 2015.

Already, officials at the Ministry for Drinking Water and Sanitation have warned that Modi’s plan will be near-impossible to complete. They claim that the government has neither the resources nor manpower to finish the project by 2019.

Other experts say that building a toilet is not enough: without supporting infrastructure, the structures will be useless. “Just as a toilet is a necessity for every household, it is equally important to ensure that the supporting infrastructure like water supply, sewerage and waste management and cleaning is managed in a planned manner,” said Wilson Bezwada, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Aandolan. “Otherwise, it will become the same as Modi’s Jan Dhan Yojana, where poor people will have bank accounts but no financial mechanism or support for their unsteady monthly income.”

Despite the challenges, here are four benefits the scheme is likely to bring.

1) It will save lives
Every year, 200,000 infants die  in India alone because of open defecation, according to a study by Brian Arbogast, director of the Water Sanitation and Hygiene Programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Open defecation leads to contamination of food and water and transmits diarrhea-related diseases. In addition, it can also cause mental and cognitive stunting to young children, Arbogast's study said.

Doctors have identified a number of other diseases that follow from open defecation: skin diseases, respiratory diseases, eye problems, scabies, intestinal parasites resulting in kidney damage, anthrax and tuberculosis.

2) It will improve women's  safety and literacy
Modi has emphasised that functioning toilets need to be available for girls in government schools. According to Ministry of Human Resource Development data, close to 10% of the 11 lakh schools in India do not have toilet facilities for female students – 101,443 schools, to be precise. As a consequence, girls leave school on average at an earlier age than their male contemporaries.

The safety of women is another major area of concern. Non-governmental organisations say there have been several cases of women being raped and killed on their way to relieve themselves.

“Unhygienic practices like defecating in the open lead to diseases and deaths of over 600,000 lives per year In India,” said Rakesh Johri, a senior fellow at The Energy Resource Institute. “It also exposes a third of the nation’s women to the risk of rape and sexual assault.”

3) It will boost the economy
There are around 11.3 crore households in India that do not have access to toilets, according to the Census 2011 data.

Constructing a basic toilet will cost between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 per toilet, including the price of bricks, cement, sand, roof, door, sanitary ware, plumbing, septic tank and labour. The cost of building toilets across 11.3 crore households will be between Rs 1.65 lakh crore and Rs 2.2 lakh crore. The construction activity is also expected to boost job creation.

The Swach Bharat scheme could boost ceramic tile makers and sanitary-ware manufactures by 15%, according to news reports. Companies like Hindware, Somany Ceramics and Roca Parryware are setting up new manufacturing units to prepare for the expansion in demand.

Several companies have stepped in with their own initiatives. Tata Consultancy Services has invested Rs 100 crore to build toilets for girls across 10,000 schools across the country. Bharti Enterprises has announced a budget of Rs 100 crore for Satya Bharti Abhiyaan, an initiative to construct toilets in Ludhiana and the neighbouring areas within the next three years.

Hindustan Lever will build 24,000 toilets across Maharashtra, The Aditya Birla Group has announced that it will construct 10,000 sanitation facilities in states like Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat by 2015.  Hindustan Zinc plans to construct 30,000 toilets across rural areas in Rajasthan (and has already built 9,000 of these).

ITC, meanwhile, has announced an initiative called Mission Sunehra Kal, part of which invovles improving sanitation facilities in rural areas.

4) It will help eradicate manual scavenging
Though India banned the degrading practice of manual scavenging in 1993, humans continue to clear excreta from toilets around the country. However, a senior official at the Ministry for Drinking Water and Sanitation said that as new toilets were being constructed across the country, existing dry toilets would be demolished.

Since toilets in India's trains empty out on to the tracks, the railways employ manual scavengers to clean them, according to a study by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. However, the Ministry of Railway and the Ministry of Environment and Forests are developing alternative sanitation strategies.