The Inspiring Story of How Sikkim Became India’s Cleanest State

In Sikkim’s Basilakha village, residents proudly escort visitors to their toilets, before posing happily for a photoshoot with a lavatory in the background. Basilakha is not an exception. In this small north-eastern state, people have a sense of pride that their home state is India’s first open-defecation free state. This record was reiterated in the recently conducted Swachhta (cleanliness) survey undertaken by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) on the condition of sanitation in Indian states. According to the report, all four of Sikkim’s districts rank among top ten districts in cleanliness and sanitation. About 98.2% households in Sikkim are equipped with clean toilets and 100% of the state’s population uses the community or household toilet.

Sikkim began its cleanliness drive over a decade before Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission. It was 13 years ago in 2003 when the Pawan Chamling-led government launched its total sanitation campaign for the state. The state government began by sensitizing people to adopt a holistic approach that would improve hygiene and sanitation, protect the environment and accelerate overall development in the state. Next, it constructed 98,043 household latrines, surpassing its own target of 87,014. Of these, 61,493 latrines were built for below poverty line (BPL) families. There was also a conscious effort to install public filters for drinking water, build more public toilets and introduce a better drainage system in the major cities like Gangtok and Namchi. As many as 1,772 schools were covered under the total sanitation campaign. This was done under the central government’s Nirmal Bharat sanitation drive. The government also got local panchayats involved to sensitise people, particularly about hygiene and the fact that Sikkim needed to maintain a clean and green image as a tourism state.

Next, the Sikkim state government made it mandatory to have functional sanitary toilets at home for candidates filing nominations for contesting panchayat elections. A functional sanitary toilet in the household was also made mandatory for availing any kind of benefit and grants from the government. The campaign also included door-to-door campaigning and working with school children to convince families about the health benefits of using toilets. The first acknowledgement of the campaign’s success came in 2008, when Sikkim was declared a ‘Nirmal Rajya’, a national award for sanitation and cleanliness. For the Sikkim government, the next endeavor was to focus on sustainability and qualitative improvement with special focus on school sanitation and solid-liquid waste management.

Under the School Sanitation & Hygiene Education programme of TSC, the special sanitation needs of women and adolescent school girls were addressed by making a gender sensitive school sanitation programme. This was done by introducing sanitary napkin dispensers and disposers on a pilot basis in schools, covering two schools per district. In these schools, every adolescent girl child could get a sanitary napkin by inserting a Rs 2 coin into the vending machine. Simultaneously, the used napkins could be incinerated in the disposer installed in the toilets of these schools. Furthermore, handbooks on waste management and hygiene management for adolescent girls’ have also been introduced in schools. With these pilot projects eliciting an encouraging response, more schools are being covered with such facilities in the next phase.

Sikkim’s cleanliness model has evolved over the decade to ensure that the people abide by rules. There is a strictly enforced, legal penalty for every violation – for using plastics, for smoking in public places, for urinating in the open and for littering. Breaking rules fetches stiff fines. Smoking in public place, for example, could cost the offender a fine of Rs 200, whereas urinating in public places has a fine of Rs 500. Along with the ban on plastics, these rules have been enforced in the state for over a decade now. However, the government knows that there is more to be done. While plastic packets are now rarely spotted, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) water bottles are still sometimes thrown by tourists. To address this issue, the government is contemplating a complete ban on such water bottles. This will compel locals as well as tourist to use the RO or filter water made available in designated public places, hotels and restaurants. Once executed, it will be another first in India.

In 2016, Sikkim also became the first Organic State of India, having shunned chemical pesticides and fertilizers for 13 years to return to natural methods of farming. While Sikkim has clearly emerged as the cleanest state, it also has the possibility of soon emerging as the first state in India with zero poverty – only 8 % of the state’s families live below the poverty line. Speaking about the state’s 13 year old cleanliness campaign to Economic Times, Sikkim CM Pawan Chamling says, “When I see the Swachh Bharat campaign in such a big way across the country, I feel vindicated that I did something right back in 2003.”

Lok Sabha MP from Sikkim, Prem Das Rai adds,

“Sikkim has clean food, clean air, and clean water. We are also a fully organic state. So, there is clean living. Because there is clean living, people in Sikkim are healthy and happy.” While the government’s efforts in helping Sikkim achieve these remarkable targets is commendable, the commitment and self-imposed discipline of the Sikkimese people also needs to be appreciated.