India has spent close to Rs 530 crore on promoting the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission in the media since the programme was announced in 2014, government data accessed through a Right to Information application shows.

The expenditure on advertising and promoting the campaign is equivalent to the entire annual budgets of some small schemes such as the North East development fund of the Ministry for Small and Medium Enterprises. The campaign attracts the highest Central government advertising expenditure, almost 15 times more than the much hyped Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme.

The main objective of the Swachh Bharat campaign is to make India open defecation-free by October 2, 2019, by building close to 12 crore toilets covering 1 crore households. Its other goals include cleaning up streets and other public infrastructure, achieving 100% door-to-door waste collection, building solid-waste management plants in each town, and persuading Indians to adopt better sanitation practices.

This year, the campaign received a total budgetary allocation of Rs 16,248 crore, nearly double the Rs 9,000 crore it was allotted last year. As of October, the Centre had spent Rs 37 crore on publicity for Swachh Bharat for this year.

A review of the response to the Right to Information application, whose applicant did not want to be identified, shows that Swachh Bharat’s advertising expenses are part of the “Information, Education and Communication” component of the scheme. In addition to funding general advertising, this section aims to educate citizens and municipal officials about the scheme and the benefits of sanitation.

However, most of the Information, Education and Communication spending detailed in the Right to Information response seems to be directed at print, radio and television advertisements. Swachh Bharat campaign director Yugal Joshi told in an email interview that no part of the Central allocation is used for grassroots-level awareness campaigns. Responsibility for this task has fallen to the scheme’s development partners such as Unicef, he said.

Manoj Kumar Jha, who heads Delhi University’s Social Work Department, said the campaign is more focussed on spectacle and how it is portrayed in the media than on changing ground realities. “Forget doing it, the government could not in the last 70 years imagine facing the crude realities [of manual scavenging] and even change [people of] which caste went down in the sewers to clean them,” he said.

Misguided spending?

Commentators say that Swachh Bharat’s main thrust so far has been in the area of building toilets. Its rural arm, Swachh Bharat Gramin, has built 5.3 crore toilets till date, according to its website. Swachh Bharat Urban has constructed around 34 lakh toilets. However, an investigation by The Caravan magazine found that many of these newly built toilets are poorly maintained or have been vandalised.

Even then, more toilets need to be constructed. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, as of October last year, the government had a target of building 8.2 crore more toilets by 2019 – that is, around 23 lakh toilets a month or 56 every minute.

Despite the emphasis on constructing toilets, the goal of ending open defecation is still some way from being achieved. In rural India, only 272,235 villages, or 45% of the total, have been declared open defecation-free. According to the “State of the World’s Toilets 2017” report released last week by a non-governmental agency called WaterAid, more than 732 million Indians still defecate in the open or in unsafe and unhygienic toilets.

In addition, manual scavenging – the outlawed practice of disposing excreta by hand – continues to be widespread. Open strips of land in urban and rural areas are still used as open toilets, and municipal employees or contract workers hired by the civic bodies clean these with their bare hands and without any protective equipment. Since manual scavenging is illegal, there are no official records on it. But the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has called for an end to the practice, said in 2016 that over 1,300 people had died cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the past two years. The 2011 Census estimated that 8 lakh people are engaged in manual scavenging.

Among other problems, researchers from the Centre for Policy Research’s Accountability Initiative said there was a lack of coordination between the Centre and states in planning and evaluating the mission.

The study by the Centre for Science and Environment, meanwhile, noted that a lack of government data and third-party audits was hindering the scheme. The Swachh Bharat guidelines recommend a yearly audit of nationwide expenses on the campaign. But media reports say few of these have been conducted and as a result, the World Bank is yet to release the $1.5 billion (approximately Rs 10,000 crore) it had committed to the mission in 2015.

However, Swachh Bharat campaign director Joshi said that a national survey covering 90,000 households across all states was underway as part of the agreement with the World Bank, and would be completed by January. He also said the government was “confident of achieving an Open Defecation Free Rural India by October 2, 2019”.

Among its accomplishments, the Swachh Bharat campaign claims to have achieved 100% door-to-door waste collection in 44,650 wards out of a targeted 82,725 in urban areas.

This year, the Swachh Bharat Mission had spent Rs 37 crore on publicity as of October. (Credit: HT)

Creating awareness

In 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had criticised Swachh Bharat’s predecessor Nirmal Bharat for not giving the Information, Education and Communication component – vital to creating “awareness about the benefits of sanitation and hygiene” – enough importance. “IEC [Information, Education and Communication] activities were not taken up with the strategic importance to the scheme but rather as an administrative exercise for fund utilisation,” the audit report had observed.

It isn’t clear whether the Swachh Bharat campaign will be able to allay the auditor’s fears, given that the projected Information, Education and Communication expenses for the programme are just 3% of its budget.

However, Joshi said that the government is now focusing more on non-advertising Information, Education and Communication. This includes instructing and training citizens and municipal workers on better sanitation techniques. He added that the states are supposed to spend 5% of their budgets on this component, which includes advertising as well as awareness and training programmes.

“As per a recent order issued by the ministry [of water and sanitation], spending the stipulated amount by states on IEC is now a pre-condition for release of funds to states,” he said. Joshi said states had ramped up their Information, Education and Communication spending after this order.

He added: “… Apart from the money spent by states on IEC, the ministry and states mobilise tremendous support from development partners and carry out IEC activities through them, which don’t reflect in the official IEC spending.”