ClashDaily Guest Contributor
By: Parameswaran Iyer
Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India
On the 15th of August, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the elimination of open defecation a central mission of his first term in words that seared the conscience of India. No Prime Minister in India’s history had ever walked up the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in Delhi on India’s independence day to create a national conversation around toilets for the poor. The speech was unprecedented. At the time, more than half of the world’s people who defecate in the open resided in India. It was a social curse upon 600 million Indians.
More than half a century ago, Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul made this reality a corrosive image in his famous book, “An Area of Darkness”. This was perhaps India’s most degrading secret and with this book, it was now out in the open.
Before Modi was elected, prior Prime Ministers considered sanitation unworthy of mention, or were simply too embarrassed. It wasn’t until Narendra Modi said in his iconic speech, “We are living in the 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open? Isn’t the dignity of women our collective responsibility? The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can’t go out to defecate.” It was the voice of our current Prime Minister alone who was able to empathize with the pain that hundreds of millions of Indian women, children, and men had to live through every day. He challenged conventional wisdom, broke established stereotypes, and archaic social norms, and gave a chance to millions of people to live with the dignity that no one had granted them for centuries.
Prime Minister Modi ignored critics who thought it was unbecoming of a Prime Minister to talk of lowly toilets from the Red Fort, or claimed that there were many other “more important” issues facing the country than lack of toilets. Sanitation was accorded the highest national priority. He decided something drastic had to be done to solve a problem that most were unwilling to acknowledge. The curse had to end, and Narendra Modi made it his mission to do so.
Today, within just five years, India is on the verge of achieving universal sanitation coverage. This achievement is nothing short of a developmental revolution. The enormity of this success goes well beyond the positive public health impact.
Prime Minister Modi took the risk of setting an extremely ambitious goal, which most said was impossible to achieve, and backed it with adequate resources – India committed over $20 billion over five years to achieve universal sanitation coverage. The Government of India and State Governments jointly offered a financial incentive to financially weak households to help them build their own toilets. The Government ensured that no one, even in the most remote parts of the country, were left behind. But most of all, the Prime Minister empowered the people and challenged them to make a difference in their own lives by making sanitation a people’s movement, a jan andolan (meaning, “people’s movement”). He knew that disruptive change can only happen when the people take collective responsibility to achieve a task.
Prime Minister Modi is committed to helping other nations learn from India’s experience of achieving large scale transformative change. In September last year, as many as 55 Ministers of sanitation from around the world came to India to learn about the Clean India Mission at the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention, and since then, many of these countries have modeled their sanitation programs after India’s.
It is fitting, therefore, that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is going to grant the Global Goalkeepers Award for 2019 to Prime Minister Modi, in recognition of his exemplary leadership in catapulting India from the biggest sanitation laggard to the global sanitation poster child. He has proven that large development goals can be achieved in time with the right intent, policies, and implementation models. And now, he is applying the same principles of participatory and transformational development to achieve an even more ambitious goal – of providing piped water supply to all households in India by 2024!
There cannot be a more deserving recipient of this prestigious award than Prime Minister Modi.
Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India