From Swachh Bharat to skilling, this is critical
Given that far more Indians have access to mobile phones than they do to toilets, and that illnesses related to sanitation and general filth costs the poor the most, it is not surprising prime minister Narendra Modi is so focused on building toilets as well as on the Swachh Bharat Andolan—at his speech on the occasion, Modi said 60% of rural India defecated in the open and that health costs related to illness were around R12,000 a year for the poor in terms of costs of medicine and not being able to attend work. While the last few days have been full of photo ops, including of some ministers sweeping relatively clean pavements, just sweeping streets won’t do the trick, the mission has to include fixing the quality of water supply—often enough water pipes and sewage pipes mix due to leakages—and solid waste management; indeed, the illnesses the prime minister spoke of are more related to poor sanitation and water-borne diseases, not as much due to filth on the roads.
A good example of how a composite solution is required was made by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) some years ago in its study (Sewage Canal!) on cleaning the Yamuna, a much smaller river than the Ganga which is sought to be cleaned today. Delhi, CSE said, generated 2,500 or 3,700 million litres a day (mld) of sewage every day (the fact that the Delhi Jal Board and the Central Pollution Control Board have such divergent numbers tells its own story) as compared to the sewage treatment plant (STP) capacity of 2,330 mld. Worse, just 35% of the STPs ran at full capacity, 18% ran at 60-90%, 24% at 30-60% and 23% at under 30%—where there were STPs, there was no waste and where there was waste, there was no STP, CSE said. In 2011, the Isher Judge Ahluwalia review of JNNURM found 4,861 out of India’s 5,161 cities didn’t even have a partial sewerage network and the lack of waste water treatment facilities led to spending $15 billion each year on treating water-borne diseases. Fixing this requires not just, vital as that is, sweeping the streets or not littering or spewing paan juice on walls. It requires serious reforms of the type the JNNURM doesn’t even contemplate since people have to pay for such services. While just 8 cities, Ahulwalia found, charged to even cover the O&M costs of supplying water, CSE points out that while it cost—at the time it did the study—R5-6 to supply 1,000 litres of water, it costs R 30-40 to treat and dispose off the sewage.
A similar comprehensive solution where everything comes together is needed for Modi’s other big scheme, that of skilling India, to take off. The problem, the National Skill Development Corporation will tell you, is that India Inc is not willing to give any commitments to hire these skilled hands at a higher wage, critical for people to want to get skilled. So, the solution—it could be tax breaks—lies in not just getting India Inc to hire more, it lies in fixing labour laws (who wants to hire more if they can’t fire?) and it lies in getting economic growth back so that firms need more people. No partial solution is going to work.