Can you imagine a place where people proudly show off their clean toilets and trash-free streets? It probably doesn’t happen many places, especially in India. But in the village of Sikkim, residents are proud to be the first and only defecation-free region in the country, and they aren’t shy about showing off their clean areas to the world.
More than Toilets
According to a survey by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), Sikkim a former monarchy annexed by India in 1975, is the cleanest state in the country. The survey covered thousands of households in villages across India and was based on the percentage of households using sanitary toilets, either in their own home or in a central community toilet location. Sikkim scored 98.2%, nearly two points higher than the next closest state.
And while Sikkim has gained attention for its lack of defecation, the public effort for cleanliness reaches far beyond the bathroom.
“Our family has had sanitary latrine for many years now,” said resident Ganga Subba. “But cleanliness here is not because of our toilets alone. No one here uses plastics, no one smokes in public places, no one urinates in the open, and no one litters. There is a penalty for every violation.”
The cleanliness effort started with legislation passed by the assembly 13 years ago but didn’t earn any recognition until 2008 when the Indian government award Sikkim with the national Nirmal Rajya award for cleanliness.
The rules and details have evolved over time, but the principle is the same: break a rule and pay a fine. The penalty for urinating in a public place is Rs 500, while smoking in public will cost you Rs 200. Local government has also contributed to a general sense of cleanliness. In many of Sikkim’s cities, recent efforts have installed public drinking water filters, built public toilets, and installed a signage system that ranks a city’s cleanliness.
“Sikkim has been clean from the days of monarchy,” said Congress state unit president Bharat Basnett. “Cleanliness is in our culture. Let’s give full credit to its disciplined people, and not the government.”
Sikkim’s plan seems to be extending beyond trash and into the economy. In a country racked with poverty, Sikkim leads the charge with only 8% of families now living below the poverty line. Many residents and experts believe Sikkim could be the first state in India to reach zero poverty.
Although Sikkim has a strong history of compliance and cleanliness, authorities realize they must maintain the program’s momentum to keep the region clean.
Part of that momentum includes allowing the program to continue to evolve. The next battle may be water bottles. Sikkim effectively banned plastic more than a decade ago, but it now faces a large amount of dangerous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles left by tourists. Many advocates are encouraging the government to ban PET water bottles, which would mean tourists would have to use filtered water available in most public places. The proposed PET ban, which is supported by many government officials, would be the first of its kind in India.
“Sikkim has a history of good civic behavior. Yet, it will be quite challenging to sustain its cleanliness drive and also its open defecation free status,” said Akshay Rout, an officer in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation.
That momentum could face a problem when it comes to money. The Central funding formula recently changed, meaning Sikkim will soon be receiving less money to support its program than ever before. While many say the program is already strong enough to continue without added funds, officials worry that the decreased amount of money could hurt the maintenance of the states infrastructure and roads.
However, residents of Sikkim seem optimistic that the success can continue. Because they’ve seen how clean and successful the state can be, most are reluctant to ever let it slip back.
As Sikkim’s lone Lok Sabha MP Prem Das Rai said, “Because of clean living, people in Sikkim are healthy and happy. I can claim Sikkim is one of the happiest states in India.”
Can Others Follow?
Sikkim has definitely set the bar high for the rest of India to follow. Multiple other states are close to defecation-free status, but many other states have a long road ahead. Part of Sikkim’s great success comes from its monarchy roots and sense of cleanliness that has long been instilled in residents. It also has a very supportive local government and an engaged population.
Sikkim didn’t become the cleanest state overnight—it took a concerted effort over many years. If other regions can commit to a plan and stick to it with community and government support, they too can follow in Sikkim’s footsteps.