Last week, we learned that the central government allocation to the Swacch Bharat Mission in the coming financial year will be Rs 3,500 crore, which is less than the current budgetary allocation of Rs 4,260 crore and much less than the originally promised Rs 134,000 crore over five years.

With this amount of money, the government will hardly be able to build a toilet for every household lacking one in the next five years as was originally promised. Don’t get me wrong: I do not actually wish the financial outlay were larger because building latrines will do little to promote latrine use. What this announcement represents, however, is one more reason to believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not serious about achieving his goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019.

Since October 2, when the Swacch Bharat Mission was launched with images of the prime minister sweeping the road in New Delhi’s Valmiki Colony, the issue of sanitation has been getting less and less public attention from Modi. Despite all the commitments in October, the Mission’s guidelines released in mid-December hardly represented any meaningful shift from the previous government’s strategy. The new guidelines are just more of the same, and suggest a denial of the fact that the past 15 years of government sanitation programmes in India have failed to achieve anything.

More recently, we learned that the Mission is one of the centrally-sponsored schemes whose funding arrangement will change under the aegis of cooperative federalism. This may explain the reduction in its budgetary allocation since under the new sharing pattern, states will receive a greater share of taxes and duties, which they can spend on programmes like sanitation if they so desire, or not. These changes will relieve states from their already minimal expectation of accountability.

Passing the buck

States have always been responsible for implementing sanitation, and the guidelines for the centrally-sponsored scheme have always been just that: a suggested course of action. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has used this argument in the past to explain why some states have not implemented a few important aspects of the policy and why the ministry can do nothing about it.

Moving more in the direction of alternative funding arrangements may make it easier for Modi to wash his hands of the issue altogether. In October 2019, when crores of people still defecate in the open, it will be easier for Modi to say it is not his fault that the country failed to become free of open defecation.

Perhaps the best redemptive part of the lacklustre Swacch Bharat Mission guidelines is a call for monitoring latrine use in addition to latrine construction. Yet there seem to be no plans to carry this important survey forward. Though it would be easy and inexpensive to conduct a latrine use survey, there has been no news since the guidelines were released more than two months ago about how or when this will happen. Failing to follow through on this promise would be extremely convenient for a government that knows the findings of such a survey would be an embarrassment.

In this context, I fear this budget announcement represents the last nail in the coffin of Modi’s sanitation promises. Despite Modi’s initial enthusiastic commitments, very little has changed, whether of the policy or the budget.

Uncomfortable social truths

If you think it is possible for Modi to do better with the same resources, just look at Gujarat. As chief minister, he could only achieve a 1 percentage point reduction in rural open defecation per year in the state between 2001 and 2011. At this rate, with these policies, India will take more than 50 years to eliminate open defecation.

It is not clear why Modi is abandoning his flagship programme. Does he actually think that what he has done so far is sufficient for eliminating open defecation by 2019? Was it all just a political stunt, as many observers have suggested? Is he trying to save himself from the embarrassment of failing when 2019 eventually rolls around and crores of people still defecate in the open?

There is no doubt that eliminating open defecation in India is going to be very difficult, even if the goal is 2030 and not 2019. Practices of purity and pollution, as well as India’s unique history and renegotiation of untouchability, prevent widespread use of the kinds of simple latrines the government builds. India’s sanitation challenge is different from every other country in the world because of these unique social and culture beliefs. This unfortunately means that the solutions will have to be unique too.

But nothing about Modi’s sanitation programme is unique: it is the same old policy but with less accountability. If the prime minister is unwilling to confront the uncomfortable cultural roots and social truths behind India’s bad sanitation, it makes sense politically for him to distance himself from the unsanitary mess. It is too bad India’s growing children do not have the option of moving away from the germs, death and disease spread by open defecation.

Sangita Vyas is the Managing Director for Sanitation at r.i.c.e.