October 2 marked the second anniversary of India’s flagship sanitation programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission. On the occasion, high-ranking government officials across the country donned plastic gloves to collect garbage in front of media cameras. In Delhi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh commemorated the day by commending children for telling their elders not to litter. In Patna, a member of Parliament collected rubbish in a fancy silver bin, flanked by supporters. Where I am, in Panaji in Goa, government employees awkwardly swept the streets.

But in none of these places would one have guessed, from the day’s activities, the main goal of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

Over two years ago on Independence Day, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the nation by talking about the need to eliminate open defecation, and proposed the lofty goal of doing so by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019. Two months later, the Swachh Bharat Mission was born.

Poor sanitation spreads infectious diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of children each year, and stunt the physical and cognitive development of those who survive. Announcing a goal of accelerating the reduction in open defecation was a great idea, articulating a worthy goal for serious public policy efforts.

But in the years since, the main objective of the campaign appears to have been conveniently forgotten by the nation’s leaders, with huge consequences. We are almost half-way through the prime minister’s flagship programme and awareness of its primary objective – to eliminate open defecation – is still abysmally low.

Little awareness

We conducted a phone survey to try to understand how much awareness there was about the programme. Between spring and summer 2016, we talked to over 2,500 individuals, a sample representative of Delhi, the National Capital Region and Uttar Pradesh. We first asked respondents whether they had heard of the Swachh Bharat Mission. Sixty-two per cent of people in Delhi-NCR and 40% of urban and rural Uttar Pradesh claimed they had. However, it is possible that some respondents may have answered positively merely in order to appear engaged, or because they believed “yes” was the socially-desirable response.

To people who claimed they had heard of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we asked a more difficult follow-up question: What do you think the programme does? We allowed people to volunteer as many activities as they could think of and we categorised their responses. Most people thought the goal of the Swachh Bharat Mission was general cleanliness, of homes and public spaces. This is no surprise given the ubiquitous image of government officials sweeping streets and cleaning public spaces.

There was shockingly little awareness that an important goal of the Swachh Bharat Mission was to eliminate open defecation. Only 5% of respondents in Delhi-NCR and 3% in Uttar Pradesh mentioned that the programme had something to do with toilets or their use.

That the Swachh Bharat Mission has turned into a public cleanliness campaign, that too for basically one day of the year, gets us no closer to accelerating the reduction of open defecation in the country. Although it may be more convenient to avoid conversations about open defecation, the costs of doing so are enormous.

A more appropriate way to celebrate the anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission would be to publicly engage with the reasons why open defecation persists. The history and continuing practice of untouchability plays an important role in explaining widespread open defecation in India, and openly addressing these issues on Gandhiji’s birthday would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of the beloved leader, who challenged caste divisions by asking his followers to empty their own chamber pots.

October 2 also marked another historic event: The Indian government ratified the Paris climate change agreement. India’s commitment to this deal is an important step towards curbing the rise in global temperatures that would have a profound impact on human health and well-being. I only hope that the government’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions does not suffer the same fate as its promise to end open defecation.

Sangita Vyas is Managing Director for Sanitation at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics.