In 2014, the Government of India launched the ambitious Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission to improve urban quality of life by eliminating open defecation and increasing sanitation coverage in its more than 4,000 cities by October 2, 2019 — the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. During my visit there earlier this year, I saw significant progress being made toward this goal and was proud of the technical assistance the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing to strengthen national sanitation and support this effort. As of now, thousands of cities are on track to achieve open defecation free (ODF) status by October 2019.
The importance of this campaign should not be understated. Roughly one out of every three Indians lives in a city, with the poorest living in slum settlements. In these areas people are disconnected from municipal water and sanitation services and are frequently without access to improved sanitation facilities. These residents are particularly susceptible to diseases spread by improper wastewater disposal and open defecation, which is still practiced by nearly 600 million people nationwide. Illnesses due to intestinal disease result in the loss of an estimated $54 billion — or 6.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Moreover, this contaminated water increases the spread of potentially deadly waterborne illnesses including diarrhea — a top cause of childhood stunting in India that claims the lives of 300,000 children every year.