Impossible is Nothing

It has been three and a half years in the making. The Prime Minister announced the Swachh Bharat Mission from the Red Fort on 15 August 2014. But for me, the Swachh Bharat Mission began on March 14, 2016, when I first walked in to the office of the new Secretary of the then Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr Parameswaran Iyer. My organization, Tata Trusts, had sent three of us from the team to support setting up of systems and processes in his office “for a couple of days”. Next thing we know, my friend colleague Vineet and I are the longest serving members of the Ministry team, after “boss”, and we are working day and night on Swachh Bharat Grameen – the part of the Mission that dealt with access and usage of toilets in Rural India. Today is October 2, 2019. The official sunset clause of the Swachh Bharat Mission. And we are all in Ahmedabad where the Prime Minister will dedicate an Open Defecation Free India to the nation in a couple of hours.

This is not a political post, but a story of a big success in the history of our country. Many schemes began in 2014, and to be fair, not all have achieved the same degree of success. What was different about Swachh Bharat then? How did rural India landscape get transformed and how did toilets replace open defecation sites in our villages? I say, at the cost of sounding immodest, it was the team.

I have worked for close to a decade now with the government sector in various capacities. And this is the first and only example I have seen, of a sarkaari team that worked in the most unsarkaari of ways. And when I say “team”, I mean not just us at the Ministry, but also all the driven Collectors, Mission Directors, young professionals at the districts and States who wanted to and dated to work differently. This team, first and foremost, was led by our Boss – the most energetic and driven individual I have ever come across in my professional life. He is double our age and yet we always struggled to match his pace and sheer stamina to work. Second, we all, most importantly, BELIEVED that change was possible. In my experience, a special bane of government projects is “experienced” people who give up before they start because they have seen things fail for decades, and that sadly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Third, we never shied away from seeking and accepting help from all quarters – the development sector has probably not been such a true partner of the government in any other sector or scheme as it was for SBM. And, finally, we communicated relentlessly. A collector who thought making their district was impossible was given the example of ten worse-off districts who did it. Skeptical journalists were reached out to and our game plan was openly shared with them. People at the top of the government and almost all sectors were made ambassadors of change.

Today, you may question this success with a picture of a stray person still going out to defecate or an unused toilet. I will not say that this is not happening, or that today, in anyway, marks the end of our journey. There are miles to go before we sleep. Solid and liquid waste management still remain a challenge, we still need to clamp down on plastic usage with effective alternatives, and Management of fecal waste from the toilets we built will be a task in the years to come. That said, today is a moment to celebrate nonetheless. When we began, the toilet coverage of rural India was at 39% after 67 years of Independence. Today, we stand at 100% and even if you think that number is actually 95% or 90% or even 80% in your opinion, think about what a long distance that is to have traveled in 5 short years. Think about the crores of families and lives transformed. Think about the crores of infants and children who will not die of easily preventable diseases like diarrhoea because there is better sanitation in their community. Think about the crores of women who don’t have to lurk in the fields at dawn, finding a private spot to lift up their saaris and squat, only to be harassed and raped because they dared to answer the call of nature. Think about this video from 2017 that I am sharing with this post, one of the many reasons we did what we did.

And this is what is possible when a group of driven individuals who believe, led by a leader who believes – all put together their energies and their everything for a cause that matters. As we’ve said in our book on Swachh Bharat, when this happens, “Impossible is nothing.”

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