Swachh Bharat, Delhi Air Pollution, Why Govt fails big time?

It is again that time of the year in Delhi. Monsoon is over, Winter (thanks to changing climate) is yet to come, but the air is slightly cold and foggy. Noise related to pollution has again started to appear on social media timelines – Posts on Paddy stub burning, trucks coming, open construction etc. But the fact of the matter is that the winter of 2017 is going to be as much polluted if not less than the winter of 2016 which was as bad as that of 2015. Before the hidden politician amongst us jumps and starts looking at the performance of rhetoric driven AAP Govt, let us look at the performance of another regime which is also trying to another big problem plaguing India and that is cleanliness in India.

PM Modi launched a drive to make India clean on 15th Aug 2014. Work started on a war footing with words backed by large budgets & media campaigns.  Govt has spent/allocated more than 26000 Cr ($3.5 bn) on Swachha Bharat since 2014 but there is hardly any impact seen on the ground. Despite ‘in your face’ campaigns, large money spending, the situation has not improved at all. Take a stroll in any of our marquee cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Varanasi, Agra etc and landscape remains as dirty as ever. Earlier there was just garbage all over now there is garbage with hoardings of Clean India! There are campaigns and big talk of toilets being built everywhere but in reality, everything is as it was prior to 2014 except an addition of storage room aka a dysfunctional toilet in every rural household and this futile exercise has consumed close to $ 3.5 bn in hard cash. Now again before we start looking at the failure of BJP and its inability to move things, we need to ponder and need to look beyond parties. It’s not AAP / BJP / Congress failure but a failure of Govt or rather a failure of the way the Govt thinks.

If one looks carefully and analyze the way govt acts it will come out that Indian government rarely thinks in terms of performance, the end result, or NPS score of target consumers/customers but always think in terms of money being spend/allocated and scheme names. This thought process has led to a scenario where whole government thought process is limited to budget/cess/allocations & vanity matrices like 100% literacy, 100% village electrification (If 10% of houses get electricity, its considered electrified for the purpose of govt record) and naming all such schemes after Nehru Ji, Gandhi Ji and now on Atal ji and DeenDayal ji.

If there is any doubt on this line of Govt thinking, kindly look at advertisements released by various Govt under various regimes. It does not matter if the advertisement was released by Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi, Mayawati or Akhilesh, Manmohan Singh or Modi, the template remains same.  Some scheme name, a big photograph of the leader along with data on the quantum of huge crores being spent,  so many families benefitting, blah blah. Suddenly you wonder if there was really a regime change or the same set of people are still running the government under a different set of masks!

Hence If one looks at Swach Bharat campaign from a government perspective, the whole campaign looks super success full with  26,000 Cr allocated, more than 52 million toilets built, India is on way to becoming super clean. But the reality on the ground is totally different. Was there any issue on the Govt intent? NO, Govt was as determined as it can be but core issue has been thought process where Govt can only think from budget outlays. Nobody focussed on fundamental problems related to toilets/sanitation and challenges related to it.

The fact of the matter is that India is neither ready nor can afford western model of toilets. First, there is no sewage system in any of the villages or towns and on top of it, there is hardly any water. In India, the difference between have-nots and haves is just one simple thing – access to clean running water. Only rich and middle class have access to it while resting of the India battles for few liters of potable water every day. With a focus on having toilets,  a person who was using 300 ml water in open defecation earlier,  now needs 3-liter water at his house and this house has no running water no access to sewer lines and no place to build sewage pits. The house in villages is either interconnected or clustered together having no scope to build open pit system. Even if one builds an open system, what to do during monsoon flooding or filling of tanks in 2 years as there is no manpower working in these areas? So if one looks at the constraint on the ground – no water, no waste disposal system, the idea of “Swachh Bharat” by building toilets was DOA ( dead on arrival) however the whole Govt machinery just went ahead with the plan –  as it knows one thing best which is to create a budget and collect money for it. So whole Govt went ahead with 26,000 Cr in hand even without understanding the basic problem of sanitation and challenges related to water, disposal, treatment etc.

So again before passionate hidden politicians jump and start blaming Modi govt. pause and see what happened in Delhi.

Delhi Govt in all earnestness appointed IIT Kanpur to do a study and find out the cause of pollution in Delhi. The report which has its own serious flaws in methodologies / simplistic observations/conclusions,  was still adopted by Delhi Govt but none of the simplistic solutions was implemented by it. Why? The simple reason is that solutions were like 1000 cuts war on pollution rather than any big bang budget approach and to make matter worse the improvement would have shown by 2022 (the election is in 2020). Since there is no big budget allocation, no ribbon cutting, and no big hoardings, the report and solutions have been conveniently parked in a cold storage.

So what is the solution? The only solution to all such problems is one that is delinking budgets from any action. Govt needs to think in form of solutions/ results rather than in terms of budgets and big bang approach.  For example in the quoted IIT Kanpur report, roadside dirt in summer had very high weight. A small team could have taken a cluster of Delhi and implemented changes to see if vacuuming the road and covering construction is creating any localized impact and what could solve this. A lot of A/B testing in startup parlance but with focus on finding a solution rather than big bang talk with focus on election!. Likewise, for Swachh Bharat, It would have been better if Govt had done trials on some select cities like Agra, Varanasi, Bangalore etc and figured out what is working and what is not working. Or in villages, the focus could have been on building community toilets rather than at individual homes.

Executing small projects is not complicated and there is enough talented manpower with the Govt in addition to the large budgets, but then small projects don’t get allocation or gravitas from the top. Further, these projects can’t be run by politicians as they are tied to the 5-year horizon and neither by bureaucrats with transferable jobs. This project needs people with long-term engagement as well as skin in the game with suitable rewards as well as accountability and punishments. Until the existing system thinks in terms of a long-term model with proper accountability and lifetime postings, India will remain refugee to musical chair policy making and will slowly decline to a hell hole in terms of quality of life in no times as policies designed for slavery don’t work in democracy on a long-term basis!
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Shailesh Vickram Singh

Shailesh Vickram Singh is an entrepreneur / venture capitalist with more than 20 years of exp.