World Council of Churches Ecumenical Water Network (WCC-EWN) coordinator Dinesh Suna attended the International Sanitation Convention from 29 September - 2 October in India. Suna shared his reflections on the conference, the role of EWN, and the future of sanitation and how it affects justice in the lives of millions of people.
Q: Representing the WCC, you recently you attended a high-level event on sanitation in India. Could you tell us more about that event?
Suna: Coinciding with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on 2 October, the Indian government organised the International Sanitation Convention. On 2 October 2014, the Indian government launched a campaign called “Mahatma Gandhi Swachh Bharat Mission / Clean India Mission.”Gandhi used to say that cleanliness and adequate sanitation are more important than the freedom struggle. The Indian government organised this high-level event to showcase its progress in the past four years as it aims to make India an Open Defecation Free (ODF) country by the next birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (2 October 2019). The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been spearheading this campaign. He participated in the event along with his ministers, including the minister for Water and Sanitation, as well as the president and vice president of India.
The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres also participated in the convention with ministers of Water and Sanitation from over 50 countries.
Q: Why is India taking the lead in this campaign for sanitation through the Swachh Bharat Mission/Clean India Mission?
Suna: With a humongous population of 1.25 billion, Indian streets are known for littering and dumping of filth by the roadsides, into the sewers, canals, rivers, etc. This campaign wanted to address this issue by encouraging people to stop littering and start cleaning their neighbourhoods.
Besides, India had earned the negative reputation of being the world's largest "open-air toilet" with over 600 million people, about half of India's population practising open defecation. India wanted to change that image by working towards making India an Open Defecation Free Country. The government claims that, in just four years, it has reduced the number of people practising open defecation from 600 million to 150 million, and that the rural sanitation coverage has apparently increased from 39% to over 90%. However, these tall claims of the government need to be cross-checked by accountability audits through civil society organisations..
Q: What was your role in the event?
Suna: Through our interfaith partners in India, the GIWA (Global Interfaith WASH Alliance), I was invited to the convention by UNICEF and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council to represent the World Council of Churches.
I was one of the panelists at a high-level workshop titled "Sanitation is everyone's Business" in which faith community representatives were invited to speak alongside UN officials and officials from the Ministry of Water Sanitation of India.
Some 20 billion USD is planned to be invested into this Clean India Mission. The key emphasis of my message was that “no matter how much money you put in or how many toilets you build, without a strong emphasis on behavioural change, the campaign will not be a success. The faith communities have a strong influence on the behavioural change of the people. Therefore, Sanitation is everyone's business, including that of the Faith Communities."
The panelists were asked to release two coffee table books on the progress of India on sanitation issues through the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Q: The UN Secretary-General and the Prime Minister of India attended the event. What was their message to the participants?
Suna: As mentioned earlier, though the campaign Swachh Bharat Mission is under the Indian Ministry of Water and Sanitation, this campaign has been spearheaded by the prime minister of India. At the event, the prime minister recognised the states that have made much progress in this campaign, namely Uttar Pradesh State, the largest state in India with a population of over 200 million, and assured that 11 years before the target of 2030, as per Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals, India will achieve the sanitation-related target.
The UN secretary general congratulated India on its progress in bridging the gaps in access to adequate sanitation facilities. With India's progress, the global statistics of people without adequate sanitation facilities will be significantly reduced from 2.4 billion and will be a source of encouragement for others.
Q: What are your impressions and conclusions about the event?
Suna: I being an Indian, couldn’t be happier if India achieved the target of becoming an ODF country! However, there are huge gaps in the government’s reports and the realities. Even in my visit to India during this event, I could not see a stark difference between what it was before the Swachh Bharat Mission campaign four years ago and now! However, I can admit that never before I had seen or heard so much awareness and political will by the government to make India ODF and to focus on cleanliness. I also believe this has got to do with the chief architect of the Clean India Mission, Parmeswaran Iyer, secretary, Ministry of Water and Sanitation, India, with his vast experience of working with the World Bank and other international organisations, trying to innovatively involve the celebrities, politicians and media to “clean India”. This country is heavily burdened with an oppressive caste system where the lower caste communities known as the Dalits are expected to clean
the streets and the toilets, manually without any safety gear. Almost all the “manual scavengers” and “sweepers” in India belong to the Dalit community. The SBM is slowly changing that reality and the perception. Thanks also to the campaign of Magsaysay laureate Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (Campaign against Manual Scavenging), these perceptions of people, government and media are changing for better.
Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention (https://www.mgiscindia.org