President of India tells global sanitation conclave “an open defecation free India is the best 150th birthday gift we could give Mahatma Gandhi”

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  • September 29, 2018
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The Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention began today with more than 160 international representatives from 68 countries amongst the 350 attendees. Fifty-three Ministers of sanitation are among those in attendance, all of whom aim to learn from India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), or “Clean India“ programme, and share their own sanitation and hygiene experiences from home.

Shri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, noted in an inaugural speech that “an open defecation free India is the best 150th birthday gift we could give Mahatma Gandhi”. Mr. Arun Jaitley, the Indian Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, said that the SBM had benefited not only from political leadership, but also people’s participation from all sections of society including eminent personalities from various disciplines and, most importantly, ordinary citizens. “All of this occurred at an appropriate time of great economic growth in India and benefited from a bottom-up approach that broke a larger problem into smaller parts that were easier to solve”, he said. Mr. Kevin Rudd, Former Prime Minister of Australia, and Chair, Sanitation and Water for All, said, “Other things are important, but sanitation is essential. The glasses of Gandhi are the gaze of the ages looking down at us.”

A recurring theme through the day was how the SBM has transformed from a government programme to a true peoples’ movement. “Everybody in this country contributed [to the Swachh Bharat Mission]; that is why a miracle has happened”, said Sushree Uma Bharti, Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, India. “[Swachh Bharat] is no longer a project of the government; it has become a project of the people”, said Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister (I/C) Housing and Urban Affairs, India. Mr. Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, India, noted how Gandhi’s vision of an open defecation free India “is now being translated into reality, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.” Mr. D.S. Mishra, Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, observed that the Convention would allow for sharing of experiences that would benefit India as well as visiting countries.

In the plenary on behavior change at scale, Mr. Iyer noted that India has transformed from the largest contributor of open defecation to the largest behavior change movement. Ms. Jennifer Sara, Director of the Global Water Practice at the World Bank, indicated that targeted messaging was critical for behaviour change programmes to work. Mr. Roland Ravatomanga, Minister of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Madagascar, spoke of studying and applying social norm theory and social transformation in sanitation programmes. And Prof Valerie Curtis, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said passion, emotion, reward and incentivization are all pillars for sustained behaviour change.

Following the opening plenaries, a series of parallel technical sessions examined key sanitation-related topics, including strategic partnerships (moderated by Ms. Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair, India Sanitation Coalition), urban sanitation and fecal sludge management (moderated by Mr. Brian Arbogast, Director of WASH, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), gender and inclusivity (moderated by Ms. Yasmin Ali Haque, Representative, UNICEF India), sustainability of ODF communities (moderated by Mr. Arun Baroka, Joint Secretary, MDWS), sanitation as everyone’ business (moderated by Mr. Akshay Rout, Director General, MDWS), and technology and innovation (moderated by Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, Chairman, High Level Technical Committee, MDWS). The sessions also included addresses by visiting Ministers from Bangladesh, Senegal, Ghana, and Indonesia, as well as eminent speakers such as Mr. Ashwani Lohani (Chairman Railway Board, India), Mr. R Venkataraman (Managing Trustee, Tata Trusts), Swami Chidanand Saraswati (Global Interfaith WASH Alliance), Mr. Bindeshwar Pathak (Founder, Sulabh International) and Prof Robert Chambers (IDS, University of Sussex), among others.

The MGISC, hosted by the Government of India, culminates on 2nd October with the launch of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth year celebrations, also marking the beginning of the final year of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) or Clean India Mission. The 2nd October session will be presided over by the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi.

Dignitaries confirmed to attend the latter portion of this historical global sanitation convention include the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr António Guterres, and the Executive Director of UNICEF, Ms Henrietta Fore.

Tomorrow, ministers will go on an inspirational ‘Gandhi Trail’ field visit to Gujarat. Another upcoming highlight of the event will be the Ministerial Dialogues, which will include discussions on topics such as adequate financing for sanitation, working at scale for universal access, country-specific sanitation challenges and the at-scale solutions found.

India is close to becoming open defecation free. The rural sanitation coverage of India has increased significantly, from 39% in October 2014 to 94.35% as of 29 September 2018. Nearly 86.5 million household toilets have been constructed under the Mission. 24 States/Union Territories, 503 districts, and close to 500,000 villages have declared themselves free from open defecation. The number of people practicing open defecation in rural India has gone down from 550 million in 2014, to less than 150 million today.

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