Delayed payments to poor households threaten to scuttle scheme to build toilets under Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan
Three years ago, Churu, a town of 1.2 lakh people in the Thar desert, was ranked India’s dirtiest city by the Planning Commission. Two years ago, the overall district had over 40% households with no toilet of their own. Today, the district is close to its goal of becoming open defecation-free, a distinction few districts in north India have achieved.
As the evidence mounts that open defecation in particular and poor sanitation in general has had a direct impact on India’s unexpectedly high rates of malnutrition, the pressure is on for India, responsible for 60% of the world’s open defecation, to provide toilets to its population. The 2011 census confirmed that sanitation was the gaping hole in India’s progress is basic service provision – over half of Indian open households have no toilets. India’s rural sanitation campaign, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA, originally launched as the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999) aims to eliminate open defecation by 2022 (revised from the earlier aim of 2017), NBA’s joint director Sandhya Singh told The Hindu.
Most states, particularly in north India, are years away from this target. Churu’s district collector, Rohit Gupta, a 2006 batch IAS officer of the Rajasthan cadre, decided to make his district open defecation-free when he took over in November last year. “There is no justification we can give to our people and the world for why India has such high rates of open defecation, and of infant and child mortality. What we decided to do was have a comprehensive focus on malnutrition and health, and a major part of this was eliminating open defecation,” Mr. Gupta told The Hindu.
One part of Churu’s success is procedural. How it works is that households that are below the poverty line, or from backward communities, or headed by single women, are identified, must build a toilet and provide photographic proof of it to the district authorities, and are then to be reimbursed for Rs 9,100 of which Rs 4,600 comes from the NBA and Rs 4,500 from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Mr. Gupta has considerably streamlined the paperwork from the two ministries, district officials said.
The second part is the enthusiastic community response. In Anandsinghpura village in Taranagar block, Ghashiram, a scheduled caste small farmer and labourer, is at work on his new house, built under the Indira Awas Yojana. The family has already built their first ever toilet, partitioned with a cloth curtain. “When we earn some more money, we will finish the roof of our house and put a door on the toilet. But we have already started using it,” he says. In Pithisar village in Churu block, Rameti Devi takes even her toddler to the new toilet the family has now built. In Lunas village in Taranagar block,
Yet, there are gaps. The biggest one is that of delayed payments. In village after village, dozens of residents said that while they had built their toilets and the fact had been verified by district authorities, they hadn’t yet got the Rs 9,100 that they were entitled to, months after completion. Pithisar village’s Rameti Devi was happy to pose for a photo near a sign outside her new toilet that states the subsidy amount, a toilet she says her family of three uses. But she has not seen the subsidy amount herself.
In Churu, which is in the relatively prosperous Shekhawati region of Rajasthan where complete landlessness is rare, most families that have been convinced of the value of the toilet are willing to spend Rs 12-15,000 on the toilet, yet aggrieved at not having got their promised subsidy amount. Others like Mani Ram, a scheduled caste father of three who runs a barbershop in Pithisar village, haven’t yet built toilets until they are at least sanctioned the subsidy. In Lunas village, Jaichand Sharma, the well-to-do husband of the sarpanch, has paid out of his pocket for dozens of toilets to be built so that his village can be declared open defecation-free. “I want my village to be a model village, one that people come to see for its cleanliness. I had the money, so I paid for the toilets. If the subsidy does come some day and the beneficiaries decide to give it to me, then that’s fine, otherwise I don’t really mind,” Mr. Sharma told The Hindu.
Just as delayed payments undermined the MGNREGA, it is a concern that they could discourage poorer families from building toilets. Mr. Gupta admits to the delay which he says can arise either out of a shortage of funds (as the district faced over the last two months) or from the time it takes to complete union government paperwork, both issues that he cannot fix at his level. On the latter issue, Mr. Gupta says that while the stringent documentation that the government requires before releasing funds has reduced the siphoning off of funds, it has led to big delays in payments. Moreover, the NBA part of the funds can be released only after the MGNREGA component, notoriously delayed across the country, is released.
The other shortcoming in Churu is that relatively little has happened by way of urban sanitation, a criticism that has been made of the Indian sanitation mission as a whole. On both sides of the railway track near Agrasen Nagar in Churu is a slum made up of shacks made with tarpaulin and discarded banners that appears as if it came up yesterday. In fact, the slums have been there over 20 years. “We all have to go in the open, because there is no toilet around,” says Chand Khan, who works as an auto mechanic. “We women have to get up even earlier, when it’s still dark. When it rains or we’re sick, it’s very difficult,” says his wife, Raziya.
Under the Chief Minister’s BPL Awas Yojana, poor urban households get an extra Rs 5,000 for a toilet in addition to the Rs 70,000 they get to construct a house. Over 200 proposals were passed earlier, but no new proposals have been cleared since, municipal council chairman Govind Mehensariya said.