It’s the most challenging part of the Swachh Bharat campaign – getting our villages to end open defecation. Deadline: October 2, 2019. Official energy and the PM’s support notwithstanding, there are many challenges. There is some criticism too. But a beginning has been made, and the momentum is encouraging
When the voluminous 2011 census of India was released, there were many red faces at the centre. The painstakingly collected and collated figures showed that only 32 percent Indians were using toilets; the rest defecated in the open, adding to the disease burden and shame of a country that aspires to be a global economic power. The world has always been perplexed by India’s contradictions: its software engineers rule Silicon Valley and yet more than one lakh children die each year of diseases caused by faecal matter in the air, water and soil, thanks to rampant open defecation.
The shock to the government was severe, since the then government of Manmohan Singh – voted for a second term – had just patted itself on the back for the success of a massive toilet-making campaign that, according to it, had enabled 70 percent Indians shift to toilets and making India a cleaner country.
“This was a huge embarrassment and the then government put the blame on the states, saying it had blindly relied on numbers provided by them. Maybe the data was manipulated or the toilets made by the government had gone into disuse,” says a senior NGO functionary who was involved back then in the sanitation drive.
By this time, the government had nearly put an estimated one lakh crore (or one trillion) rupees into the sanitation drive under different names and yet the outcome was unimpressive. Smaller nations with lesser resources, like Bangladesh and Nepal, were way ahead in reaching near to the open defecation free (ODF) status. So when Narendra Modi, in his maiden Independence Day address to the nation, gave a call for a clean India, the cleanliness movement gained impetus. Sources say that initially, the prime minister’s idea was not focused on ending open defecation. “Like any Indian who travels abroad and is impressed with the beautiful and clean cities and villages there, he too wanted a utopia of a sparkling India – ODF was not in his mind.” However, during brainstorming with experts and senior policymakers, Modi realised that ending open defecation was the key to making India not only clean but also healthy and prosperous. Thus came into existence his most favourite scheme, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), that was formally launched on Gandhi Jayanti, October 2, 2014.
Parameswaran Iyer, a former World Bank sanitation expert, who was roped in for his global experience to make SBM a success, says, “The highest political authority backing a sanitation drive is unprecedented. It has rarely happened anywhere in the world and hence it’s a great opportunity to make India clean.”
According to Nisheeth Kumar of Knowledge Links, an NGO, Swachh Bharat is different from previous sanitation drives in the sense that instead of toilet building, it aims at ending open defecation; also the mission has a ‘deadline and a date’– October 2, 2019 – the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who made sanitation part of the freedom struggle. A former civil servant from UP, who left his job to work in the developmental sector, Nisheeth Kumar’s NGO is involved in training personnel for transforming SBM from a government-launched scheme into a community-led initiative.
Bindeshwar Pathak, who had started the toilet making campaign with the purpose of liberating so-called low-caste people traditionally involved in lifting human excreta, credits Modi with popularising the idea of total sanitation and creating consciousness at a national level. He says that during an interaction with locals in a Rajasthan village, he was introduced to a nine-year-old boy who had become the brand ambassador of Swachh Bharat on his own. “People called him Chhota Modi as he would object to people’s habit of littering. The prime minister’s involvement in the mission has generated a phenomenal consciousness about sanitation across India,” Pathak says.
The figures of toilets made and to be made and the population that would be affected thus are indeed mind-boggling. Since its launch three years ago, SBM has already led to the building of 467.94 lakh toilets and made 230 million people who were defecating in the open use toilets. This means that now 67 percent Indians are using toilets as against 39 percent three years ago. Three years of the mission mode campaign have helped reduce India’s burden of open defecation by 28 percent. By all counts, SBM is the one of the most talked about and dynamic schemes of the Modi government.
In Iyer’s office, the figures are changed every day. Five states – Kerala, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand – claim they have eradicated open defecation. These include 186 districts and over 2,32,864 ODF villages. According to the government’s Swachhta status report 2016, India’s villages are a bigger problem: about 52.1 percent of our villagers defecate in the open as against 7.5 percent in urban areas.
India’s lack of toilets is linked to age-old beliefs and mental associations: defecating or urinating is not something you do anywhere around your home; moreover, these bodily functions are considered unholy. Pathak, whose Sulabh International Service Organisation is India’s first NGO to work in the area, says the scriptures prescribed the safe disposal of human waste and forbade people from defecating close to a water source, human habitation etc. His mission, launched in Patna way back in the early 1970s, had another concern: the manual scavenging enforced on the so-called low-caste people. His idea of toilet building, which was later adopted by the central government, was to liberate dalits from the demeaning and unhygienic work of manual scavenging.
He would motivate others to construct toilets using a cheap twin soakpit technology he had invented as a student of sociology so that scavengers are made jobless. Meanwhile, scavengers would be trained in vocational courses like beauty care and apparel making to start a new life. He has been able to build 1.5 million toilets for households and 8,500 community pay-for-use toilets and rehabilitated about one million scavengers from the curse of caste bondage.
When the Modi government’s flagship programme was launched, Bangladesh had made giant strides in ending open defecation. This campaign was done sans monetary incentive; people there were made to understand that open defecation is bad for them and that ending it is in their own interest. The government never got involved in changing peoples’ habits or came in the picture. In fact, all over the world, such campaigns have never worked with financial help from the government. Interestingly, the founder of the Bangladesh’s ODF plan is an Indian – Dr Kamal Kar, founder of the Kolkata-based Community-Led Total Sanitation Foundation (CLTS Foundation). The foundation, which is working in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia on sanitation and ODF projects, has a basic mantra for the success of such campaigns – people should not be provided with incentive to change things which are for their own good. In fact, Bangladesh has used the CLTS (community led total sanitation) approach of Dr Kar to reach close to becoming an ODF country.
Kar remains critical of the Indian approach on SBM, where the government provides Rs 12,000 for toilet construction to BPL card holders. He calls the incentive on toilets an Indian monster and writes on his foundation’s website: “The use of the CLTS approach in SBM has been watered down to mere use of triggering tools to generate a need for toilets among community members, after which those eligible are given the sanctioned amount to build toilets.
Therefore, the focus has continued to remain on acquiring toilets as an individual asset, rather than inspiring collective behaviour change for better sanitation (involving the so-called eligible and not eligible) which is a public good and therefore the responsibility of every single individual in the community.”
It goes on to say: “An open defecation free environment guided by shared values, community solidarity and collective action from the community is what sustains this behaviour change as well. With the provision of outside financial assistance, firstly sanitation is externally motivated, seen as someone else’s need and not one’s own and hence not internalised and prioritised by the people. Secondly, when the subsidy is given only to some (those below poverty line who have not received the same in earlier sanitation programmes) and not the others, there is no scope for collective action as the community gets fragmented. The result as we’ve seen through the many decades and different sanitation programmes in India, is a situation where communities have toilets, but either do not use it or it is used only by some members of the family while others continue to defecate in the open.”
Developmental experts across India are also unhappy with the subsidy part of the SBM. However, young district collectors, who play a pivotal role in making SBM a success, have devised their own ways to deal with the ‘subsidy monster’. Ravinder Kumar, DC, Reasi, Jammu and Kashmir, says he avoided using subsidy for making his district the first ODF block of the state. “Getting subsidy is cumbersome and not helpful,” he says. He mobilised the village communities and asked resourceful villagers to help poor ones so that nobody has to go out for defecation. “Someone donated a commode, the other cement and bricks and the family of the beneficiary worked to make the toilet.” Ravinder Kumar’s achievement was mentioned by the prime minister in his ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio address. The success of Reasi is significant, since J&K is one of the states with high open defecation burden – more than 50 percent.
“Smart administrators are using the subsidy money to hire trained communicators, who, in turn, work on motivating the community to make their village ODF,” a senior bureaucrat says. Others are making use of terminology like ‘izzat ghar’ for a toilet to invoke the pride of villagers in making their habitation ODF.
An NGO official, who is looking after the SBM in Maharashtra, says that putting all responsibility on one official – the district collector, district magistrate or district commissioner, as the case may be from region to region – has its own pitfalls. “The SBM was launched without creating an infrastructure for its implementation below,” she says. She gives the example of a taluka in Maharashtra with 80 villages that they were working to be made ODF, there are just two persons from government for her to communicate with. As Nisheeth Kumar put it, unless the implementing officials have a missionary spirit, the ODF target is very difficult to accomplish. “And we know that not everyone is born with this spirit,” he says.
Officials in the know say the target for toilet building has been revised. A circular sent to district administrators says toilet making should be done by December 2018 and the remaining time would be used for verification of claims and in setting up the follow-up systems to motivate villagers to continue the use of toilets. The deadline had also put pressure on the DMs, leading to many other urgent issues and areas getting neglected.
The NGO official narrated the story of a DC in Gujarat, where the SBM is making great progress. It seems one day the local legislator barged into a DC’s office in a tribal district and directed him to display a public signpost about the district having achieved ODF. The DM’s pleas that his area was still going through a baseline survey and nowhere close to achieving ODF went unheard. “I had to put up the board to please the neta while things were still going on the ground,” the DC is learnt to have told the official.
In the Dangs district of Gujarat, the rural development department claimed there was 92 percent toilet coverage. But a baseline survey by an NGO found only 20-25 percent toilets had been constructed. Similarly, in Shivli village of Maharashtra, the NGO-led baseline survey found only eight families were entitled to the monetary incentive for toilet building while 200 families had already availed themselves of it. Nobody dares to speak the truth because of the pressure of meeting the deadline and knowing that this is part of the prime minister’s favourite programme.
Iyer says ODF verification is an important job, for which the professionals are being trained and systems in the process of being set up. He says construction of toilets will happen well before the deadline and his focus is on figuring out how to cope with its aftermath – verification of claims of ODF and continuity of toilet usage. “It’s in our mind and we are still working on it,” he says.
Rushing through toilet construction to meet the deadline is making the authorities throw caution to the winds on environmental safeguards of toilet pits.
“What if tomorrow it’s found that many a toilet pit are polluting the water resources? It would be a greater tragedy then,” an NGO official says.
Pathak says the pressure to deliver is a problem. “I know that in many villages, DMs have employed contractors to build the toilets without any community involvement. At places, they are digging one-pit latrines which will get clogged in three years,” he says. He also asks why the government was abandoning the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, which was supposed to have led to higher usage of modern latrines and ridden many people of the tag of low-caste sanitation workers.
Iyer is aware of the complexities of the social and caste milieu of India and the risk that the approach of the government on SBM can incur in the long run.
For this reason, one day he had accompanied a team of 40 officials to Gangadevipalli, a model village in Warangal district of Telangana, and removed the dried residue from a latrine pit himself. The villagers and officers were visibly in awe of a ‘high caste’ senior officer cleaning a shit pit. The message was out that cleaning the driver latrine pit after it is left to dry is safe.
Modi, it seems, has contributed to the nomenclature of the future sanitation army officers, who are still being trained to meet up the challenge of sustaining the cleanliness drive. Posts like ‘swachhata doot’ (sanitation messenger), ‘swachhagrahi’, ‘swachhata prerak’ and ‘swachhathon’ (run for cleanliness) are being proposed, though there is no clarity on their employment and pay structure. While the Tata Trust has taken care of 450 swachhata preraks, one each to be posted in each district to help the DM with community work, the others, largely volunteers, will be paid a nominal remuneration. Some six lakh swachhagrahis are to be appointed, one each to a village, to persuade villagers to maintain cleanliness beyond ODF declaration. However, the terms of their employment will be on the line of ASHAs (accredited social health activists) who are paid a paltry amount to carry out a large number of responsibilities. Already, ASHAs are on the warpath with the government on the issue of remuneration.
The Modi regime’s crackdown on NGOs has led the government to largely shunning the role of these key resources for the SBM. Pathak says NGOs can play an important role in streamlining work on the ground. However, Modi has handpicked only a few resourceful NGOs for building toilets. A senior policymaker in the government says, “There is suspicion of many NGOs not being honest and having dubious links; hence they have been kept out of the purview of this programme.”
Going by the blueprint of the SBM, it would appear that by October 2, 2019, India would be a cleaner land – no trash dumps on the roadside, villages clean and the infant mortality rate coming down dramatically and everyone using toilets. Iyer clarified that the 2019 target is only for making India open defecation free. “The issue of solid waste management will take much longer to deal with and that has to be dealt by different agencies and under various heads.”
Nisheeth Kumar is sceptical. “By October 2019, I don’t visualise India becoming fully ODF. I think it will take another 10 years for us to reach that level as changing people’s habits will take much longer.”
(The story appears in the September 1-16, 2017 issue of Governance Now)