As a child, all of us might have heard the story of a stack of sticks. The premise of the story is that one stick may break, but when many sticks are bundled together, it’s impossible to break them. This beautiful story taught us the power of unity. Another word for unity is convergence, when ideas, projects and schemes merge miracles happen and the Hon’ble Prime Minister is a flag bearer of this idea. The importance that the concept of convergence holds for this Government can be understood from the fact that during the first budget speech (2014) of the first term of the Government, late Arun Jaitley ji introduced convergence as one of the primary operating principles of the Government. In Jal Shakti Ministry, we have always put this concept to the test. The best exhibition of the same can be found in how Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission work in tandem, one enabling the other and vice versa. During the first term of our government, for stopping the scourge of open defecation was the top priority, Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. A record setting, more than 10 Crore toilets were built but what looks like a blessing could have turned into a nightmare if this Government didn’t have the foresight to build the toilets on twin pit design that has in-situ treatment of faecal sludge. In the second term, the issue of household tap water connections is being addressed through Jal Jeevan Mission and till now more than 50% i.e. 9.6 Crore rural households are getting tap water supply and notably more than 6.36 Crore households provided tap water connections since announcement of the ambitious programme by the Prime Minister in August, 2019. Now, the Jal Jeevan mission faces an equivalent challenge that Swachh Bharat Mission faced with faecal sludge management, i.e. successful management of grey water discharge. As 70% of all household water turns into grey water, which if untreated leads to undesirable consequences, this is where the Government has used the concept of convergence. The Government launched Swachh Bharat Mission, phase 2 with focus on Plastic waste management, Biodegradable solid waste management, Greywater management and Faecal sludge management. Thus, it is apt to note how the Government has been able to be nimble and innovative in its thinking, it was innovative for Swachh Bharat Mission, when it used twin pit toilets which didn’t need household tap connections and curtailed faecal sludge and when it had to provide household tap connection, it converged with Swachh Bharat Mission to achieve holistic sanitation in which treatment of grey water management became a vital component. Till now, under Swachh Bharat Mission phase-2, arrangement for both solid and liquid waste management have been made in 41,450 villages and nearly 4 lakh villages have minimal stagnant water. Nearly 22 thousand villages have been named model village under ODF Plus scheme, and another 51,000 villages are on their way to achieve this coveted tag. In short period of time, both the Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission have shown remarkable progress, a living breathing testimony of what convergence can achieve.
Today Swachh Bharat Abhiyan apart from saving 6.4% of Indian GDP gives annual benefits worth 53,000 per household and Jal Jeevan Mission will save 15 crore work days for Indian women annually as calculated by IDE. For any other Government, it would have been considered politically astute to rest in the laurels of making India open defecation free or providing household tap connections to every household. But the sweet sound of success be it for SBM or JJM has never been a lullaby for the Government but rather a wakeup call for the next bigger and tougher challenge.
Apart from convergence, one more heart-warming aspect of our approach have been the continuous pursuit of perfection, and undeterred will to cover all the loose ends, plug the existing gaps in delivery and take the benefits to the last man on the line. One example is how in SBM Phase-2, problems predating Swachh Bharat mission are being dealt with. Before SBM’s advent, nearly 1,20,000 tonnes of faecal sludge were left untreated as two-thirds of all toilets were not connected to the main sewer lines. In the case of plastic waste management, the scale of India’s plastic waste pollution is staggering. Both these problems find themselves on the agenda of SBM Phase 2. In a short time, 3.50 Lakh villages have become plastic dump free, with nearly 4.23 lakh villages showing minimal litter. Similarly, nearly 178 faecal sludge treatment plants and nearly 90,000 Kilometres of drains have been constructed for the same. One achievement not often discussed while quoting the phenomenal power of converge is its impact on the women folks. While Jal Jeevan mission relieves the women folk of the drudgery of traveling long distances to fetch water, Swachh Bharat Mission is centered around the dignity of women. In an independent study done by Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and UNICEF, it was found that an overwhelming number (80%) found safety and security as main drivers of their decision to construct toilets, with 93% women reported feeling safe and finding dignity in using household toilets. Jal Jeevan Mission is also catalyzing change at the grassroots by reserving 50% membership for women in village and water sanitation committees. They are encouraged to get involved in every minute aspect of planning, implementation, management and operation of in-village drinking water supply scheme. More over 5 women in every village have been entrusted with the responsibility of water quality surveillance and many women are being upskilled as plumbers, mechanics, pump operators, etc. The impact that these pioneering women will have on the malleable minds of young girls is truly immense. In their shadows, the young girls will grow and usurp other established gendered roles in the future. One final observation that always gets overlooked is the impact of these schemes on nation’s GDP. In 2006, in a joint study of WSP, ADB and UKAID, it was found that inadequate sanitation cost India Rs 2.4 Trillion or 53.8 Billion $, i.e. 6% of India’s GDP at that time. Despite such staggering realities, not much movement happened to remedy this persistent danger till the present Government made it possible. Today Swachh Bharat Abhiyan apart from saving 6.4% of Indian GDP gives annual benefits worth 53,000 per household and Jal Jeevan Mission will save 15 crore work days for Indian women annually as calculated by IDE. For any other Government, it would have been considered politically astute to rest in the laurels of making India open defecation free or providing household tap connections to every household. But the sweet sound of success be it for SBM or JJM has never been a lullaby for the Government but rather a wakeup call for the next bigger and tougher challenge. The architect behind such conviction is the Hon’ble Prime Minister who takes no shortcuts. He believes in making an incision at the very roots of societal problems, and convergence is one of the tools that he often emphasises to use for the same. It is a lesson that we have taken to the heart, a lesson that acts like a map when we sometimes lose sight of what we are striving to achieve.
( Author is Union Minister, Jal Shakti. Press Information Bureau Srinagar has mailed this article to “Kashmir Horizon” for publication in this newspaper. Views are his own)