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India's Modi in disputed sanitation claim

October 2, 2019

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in bullish form on the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, saying open defecation was a thing of the past in India. Experts are not so certain, though.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute at Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, in New DelhiImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Singh

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday claimed the country's villages now all have access to toilets.

Modi, who won a second term in May this year, made his "latrines for all" promise when he was first elected five years ago and his latest pronouncement came as the nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, who was a leading light not just for India's independence, but its sanitation as well.

Modi said: "In 60 months, 600 million people have been given access to toilets, more than 110 million toilets have been built."

He continued: "The women of our country no longer have to wait for darkness to descend. Innocent lives of young children are being saved... the expense on healthcare has come down."

Doubts remain

However, despite significant progress, experts were skeptical about Modi's claim, saying millions still lack access to a toilet.

"Latrine ownership increased from about 35% to about 70%. That did accelerate the reduction of open defecation," said Sangita Vyas from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE).

"But in December 2018 we estimated about half of people in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still defecated in the open," she told news agency AFP.

She had misgivings about whether this shortage had been reduced since, particularly as the population of the previously mentioned four states is more than 450 million.

Furthermore, over 60% of India's 1.3 billion people live in more than 600,000 villages. Many of those cannot afford to build toilets in their homes so they have to relieve themselves in open fields, forests and ditches.

Modi recognized that challenges still lingered: "We have to continue the journey to make India clean. We have to make this change in behavior permanent."

In response to the suggestion that many of the facilities that have been constructed are often locked, used for storage, or adopted for some other purpose, Modi said: "We have to make sure that the toilets are used for the purpose for which they have been built. People who are still left out must be connected to (them)."

Plastic pledge downgraded, but recycled

Modi's day of promises did not end there. He called on the country to work toward ending the consumption of single-use plastics by 2022. 

"Plastic is a big danger to health, environment and cleanliness. We must achieve the target of making India plastic free by 2022," he said.

Originally, Modi's government had announced plans for a nationwide blanket ban on single use plastics. It has since acknowledged that this would be impractical and too great a strain on industry.

While some states have already banned the use of such plastics, law enforcement of the prohibition has been lax.

Read more: Vandana Shiva, scholar and activist, India

Modi said: "I know that the use of plastic bags has already come down. Millions of households have taken a decision not to use single-use plastics."

"This will benefit the environment. Roads and sewers won't get blocked. Cattle and marine life would be saved."

According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, India produces about 15 million kilograms (33 million pounds) of plastic waste every day. Annually, that amounts to 11 kilograms of waste per capita per annum, compared to 28 kilograms globally. Approximately 60% of this is collected and recycled.

jsi/msh (AP, AFP, dpa)

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