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Limited access to improved sanitation is a serious health risks to billions of people particularly those who live in developing countries. In Tanzania, 91 per cent of rural population and 78 per cent of urban population have no access to improved sanitation. This translates to approximately 26 million people use unsanitary or shared latrines and 5.4 million have no latrine at all and defecate in the open.

In 2012, President Jakaya Kikwete launched the national sanitation campaign which is a four-year campaign that will cost over 25bn/- and will enable 1.3 million households and 700 schools to have quality toilet facilities.

Late last year, India elected a new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission which is a national campaign covering 4,041 statutory towns, to clean the streets, roads and infrastructure of the country.

Was this a political gimmick to get votes or sincerity? Can Tanzania borrow a leaf or two from this model? Staff Writer MASEMBE TAMBWE interviewed Sulabh International Social Organisation Founder and sanitation guru, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak via email. Here are the excerpts…

QUESTION: What were your first thoughts when Mr Modi launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? Is it a sincere initiative or another political gimmick to garner some popularity and get re-elected?

ANSWER: In my opinion Mr Modi is the second person in this country (excluding me because I am a small person in comparison), after Mahatma Gandhi who has taken up the cause of cleanliness and toilet from the very core of his heart.

He really means to make India clean; to keep India clean, to improve the health and hygiene of the people and also to remove poverty from the country. It is not a political gimmick or to court popularity. Quoted below are my own words which I wrote about Mr Modi after he launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan:

“The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, has ignited the candle of cleanliness among Indians to make India clean. He has asked Indians to restore the culture of sanitation which Indians had during Harappan civilization. We should join hands with the Prime Minister with all the might and resources, to make India clean and free from defecation in the open. Be civilised, be cultured, be clean, make India clean and standout in the row of civilised, cultured and clean nations.”

Q: From a personal stand point, had such a politician been in power when you started your struggle against human scavenging, would it have made your task easier?

A: It had pained the freedom fighters who joined politics and later came to power to see the practices, of night soil (faeces) being cleaned by the untouchables and of defecation in the open and had wanted to end these practices. But they could not do so because they had no clear vision of how to end and what solutions to find about them.

The politicians who helped us in our Sulabh Movement were Mrs Indira Gandhi, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Rajiv Gandhi, Chandrashekar, Narsinha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mrs Sonia Gandhi etc. Two persons, both Ministers of the Ministry of Rural Development namely Dr Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Mr Jairam Ramesh also tried to raise the sanitation issue in India.

While the contribution of both the ministers was laudable Jairam Ramesh took the bold decision of raising the subsidy amount to build a toilet from Rs. 3,000/- to Rs. 9,000/- in one go. Had they continued in office they would have got more work done in this field. But the way the present Prime Minister Mr Modi has taken up the cause to make India clean and also to provide toilets in each household with the aim of eradicating the practice of defecation in the open are steps unparalleled.

Q: Sulabh still hasn’t completed its task in eliminating human scavenging in India but has played a huge role, now that the government is taking an active role, is it one way of the government appreciating your work?

A: As I have mentioned to you earlier what the aforementioned people did and what those who do so at present do help efforts to abolish scavenging but because the way they depend upon the bureaucracy they are unable to do so and are not able to either follow through or design the programme in a way to make them successful.

The way I have restored the human rights and dignity of human scavengers, the untouchables of Alwar and Tonk in Rajasthan, the Central/State Governments have not followed suit. Although they have done something and are trying to do something, unless they follow Sulabh model it will be difficult for them to be successful. For the abolition of scavenging work has been done by them but more remains to be done and on the rehabilitation front the efforts need further improvement.

Q: In relation to the above question, the government joining forces with NGO, what is the implication of this?

A: While the proposition of the government joining forces with NGOs continues to be under consideration, the implication of it that follows is that the emphasis is getting shifted from NGOs to companies with whom, now the Government of India and State Governments prefer contacts.

Q: It is one thing to launch a nationwide campaign but quite another task to change age-old attitudes, what in your opinion does the Modi government need to do finish Gandhi’s bid to free India’s ‘untouchable’ low castes?

A: The intention of Modi government is very clear on this, which is to remove untouchability and social discrimination from the society and that the low castes should be accepted by the people. But the question is on how to go about it, and that has not been finalized so far. If the government depends only on bureaucracy and does not involve NGOs on a large scale throughout the country, it will be difficult to achieve the task of restoration of human rights and dignity of people of low castes.

Q: What should the African continent expect from Sulabh, assuming that the registration into it being an international NGO is complete?

A: Any NGO which wants to work in the African continent, one should follow the Sulabh model, working in close cooperation and collaboration with the government of that country or state.

Subjects to be taken will be decided by the people of NGO and if they want to work, we can pass on our expertise and experiences to the NGO concerned which you would like to have information from us. So if some NGOs want to come India and to learn what we have done here in this country, one can come and learn from us with some modifications according to local conditions which can be implemented in African countries also.