NEW DELHI: Last year, the world’s richest man traveled to Switzerland “to take a giant whiff” of the stench of pit toilets.
“The stench was foul and made me wince,” wrote that man Bill Gates.
So why did he do it? It’s because “the world’s sanitation challenge” is something Gates is and has been deeply, deeply, concerned with and has been working on. And that’s precisely why it’s worth sitting up and taking notice when the Microsoftco-founder and philanthropist says he “loves” the Indian government’s Swachh Bharat initiative.
In a note he posted earlier today on his gatesnotes.com blog, Gates talks in detail about why he thinks “India is winning the war on human waste.” And he lauds Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not just devising the Swachh Bharat initiative+ but for also talking about the issue of human waste.
“Nearly three years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made one of the boldest comments on public health that I have ever heard from an elected official…I can’t think of another time when a national leader has broached such a sensitive topic so frankly and so publicly,” wrote Gates about the PM’s 2014 Independence Day address to the nation.
“We are living in the 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open?… The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can`t go out to defecate. What bodily torture they must be feeling, how many diseases that act might engender. Can`t we make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” Modi said at that time.
If the problem were to be looked at through an economic lens, Gates calculated that poor sanitation costs India a staggering $106 billion-plus a year. That’s because of deaths, sickness and lost opportunity.
While it’s fairly simple to understand deaths and sickness due to abysmal sanitation, where is the lost opportunity that Gates is talking about? It’s in this statistic Gates cites: A quarter of young girls drop out of school because there’s no decent toilet available.
PM Modi understood what was at stake here, which is why he didn’t just voice his concerns, he acted on them. That’s impressed Gates the most.
“Even better (than talking frankly about it), Modi backed up his words with actions…What I love most about Clean India is that it identified a big problem, got everyone working on it, and is using measurement to show where things need to be done differently,”Gates said.
In 2014, when the Swachh Bharat initiative was launched, a mere 42 percent of Indians had access to proper toilets. “Now, 63 percent do,” Gates said. The Modi government’s plan is to give all Indians access to functioning toilets by October 2, 2019, which will be Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
Gates called the progress on the initiative so far “impressive.” The reasons for progress, he said, are ” a robust reporting system” and “ingenious ways” of getting people to change old habits.
“Officials know which states are on track and which are lagging behind, thanks to a robust reporting system that includes photographing and geotagging each newly installed toilet…As the old saying goes, What gets measured gets done. If you don’t set ambitious targets and chart your progress, you end up settling for business as usual—and in this case, business as usual would mean poor sanitation keeps killing more than half a million Indians every year,” Gates said.
Among the “ingenious” ways to get more people to use toilets – now that many have been built – Gates cited a pilot project the Centre is working on with Google, so users in 11 cities could search online for the nearest public toilets.