In his office, Parameswaran Iyer keeps a countdown calendar to October 2, 2019, the deadline for all of India to become ‘open-defecation free’. On Tuesday, the countdown dipped to ‘365 days left’. Despite some aberrations, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan-Gramin has taken massive strides towards its goal. But Mr. Iyer knows that his biggest test will come after the countdown reaches zero: sustaining the gains will be the toughest challenge, he says. Excerpts:
You’re completing four years of the Swachh Bharat programme. What do you think has been its single biggest achievement? And what was the biggest challenge?
First, the fact that this programme has really caught on as a jan andolan . It has become a ‘people’s movement’. It has captured the imagination of the country. It has addressed centuries-old practices on open defecation, and it has had major health and economic impact. A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report has said that by the time Swachh Bharat ends in 2019, more than 3,00,000 lives would have been saved.
We have got the numbers: 24 States have become open-defecation free. The number of toilets built is 8.6 crore. Sanitation coverage has gone up from 39% when we started four years ago to over 93% today. What is even more significant is that, according to the most recent independent survey, as part of a World Bank-supported project, the usage of the toilets is 93%.
That really shows that this whole behavioural change programme that is at the heart of Swachh Bharat — there is evidence that it is really working. Behavioural change at scale — I think that was the biggest challenge.
So you are saying that it is not just about building the infrastructure, the toilets.
We are very clear that this programme is primarily about changing behaviour. Now, obviously you need the infrastructure. We are trying to separate human contact with excreta and the most cost-efficient way of doing that is by providing a toilet. They have to be built, and there has been a remarkable increase in the number of toilets. But we are more interested in toilet usage.
We deploy tools at two levels. One is [through] mass media, the other [through] interpersonal communication. We have been working on developing an army of foot soldiers called swachhagrahi s, grass-root level motivators trained in community approaches and they go out to trigger behavioural change. They get their communities to accept responsibility and accountability. That ground game, that interpersonal communication, is important not just to achieve Open Defecation Free (ODF) status, but also to sustain it.
You now have 24 States which have been declared ODF, which means that the infrastructure game is supposedly over. They have constructed the toilets...
And they’re being used.
How about behavioural change? Do you continue to work on that in these States?
You have touched upon a very important point: sustaining the gains of ODF. This is one of the biggest differences between this programme and the previous ones. We have a parallel programme called ODF Sustainability — and we have not lost contact with States that have become ODF. There is continued engagement. There is also focus on ‘ODF plus’, which is about solid and liquid waste management and swachhata in general.
I was recently in Rajasthan and visited several villages where — yes, there is greater awareness, there is momentum. But not everyone has toilets and there are toilets which are incomplete. A few are being used for storage or they don’t have a water connection. Even with a working toilet, half the family goes out to the fields. And this is a State that was declared ODF a year ago. What would you say about this kind of ground reality that disputes your figures?
Let me just take you through the process of declaration [of a State as] ODF. It’s quite rigorous. First, there is self declaration by the village in an open aam sabha . Then there is verification by an agency from the district level or block level. Then, the State government sometimes does sample verification and so do we. So, the process is fairly robust, and then we have got this national rural annual survey.
If there are specific cases in Rajasthan, they need to be addressed. Whenever we get a case where someone reports to us that somewhere there is a problem on the ground, or a toilet is not constructed, or someone is still going out to the open — they may be isolated cases — we refer it to the State.
These are not really isolated cases. Is it possible that to meet the Prime Minister’s deadline, you are moving too fast to make ODF declarations? Maybe we need to accept that behavioural change takes longer than infrastructure construction?
All the feedback we get from our colleagues on the ground says that one of the reasons this programme is so successful is because of the energy, the enthusiasm of the campaign. The fact that it [has been done] in campaign mode is what brings everyone together. The earlier approach was: ‘drip, drip, drip’. You don’t get anywhere with a ‘drip, drip’ method. You have got to build up momentum.
If you talk to the collectors, all the people who were the pioneers for their districts, whether it is in Bengal or whether it’s in Rajasthan, all of them said, “If you don’t do this in campaign mode, if you don’t get everyone in the district together, all segments, elected representatives, women, swachhagrahi s, sarpanch s, it is very difficult to do it over an extended period of time. You cannot sustain the enthusiasm.”
So in a year’s time, you are hoping to have worked yourself out of a job?
We have reached 93% coverage and eventually, we are going to get to 100%, and I think well before the October 2019 deadline set by the Prime Minister.
I think it is really important now to focus upon sustaining the ODF status. In some ways, this is even more challenging than achieving it in campaign mode, because this is something that has to be done on a continuous basis. People have got to understand that sustaining the gains is going to take time, it has got to get ingrained.
Let us focus on the infrastructure again. Above the ground is the toilet. Underneath lies the twin pit, which is a concept you have been promoting. Many people in rural India still prefer a septic tank or build faulty twin pits with liquid flowing into both. What do you think can be done to improve the awareness about the twin-pit toilets?
This is something we have been focussing on and we have got to focus even more. We are convinced that this twin-pit model, which can be used in most parts of rural India, [can] actually create a treatment plant in itself. The big problem with septic tanks is the disposal of the sludge. Sludge management is not a problem when you talk of the twin pit. Now of course, that needs to be propagated better, so we are now trying to market it as a colour TV, not as a black and white TV. We have got some of our Swachh Bharat ambassadors like Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar doing promotion. Masons are being trained. We have got a big collaboration with the Ministry of Skill Development.
These twin pits are designed to last for how many years?
Typically, for a family of four or five, five to six years.
Assuming that someone built a twin-pit toilet in the very first year of Swachh Bharat, the first emptying has to happen in 2020. What do you think is going to happen then?
This is part of the training and the awareness campaign, that when one of your pits fills up, in five to six years, this is what you need to do. You need to divert it to the second pit. When the first pit is closed for more than a year, then you can take out the compost. It is harmless, pathogen-free, and it is a great organic fertiliser.
There is better communication about twin pits now. But many of the toilets built in the early stages of the campaign did not use twin pits. What happens in five years when you open them up, find that you have not built them properly and have a pit full of sludge?
Part of the training we are [providing] is about retrofitting. Wherever there are deficiencies in construction, in some cases where there are single pits, you can retrofit them to second pits.
There is also the traditional ‘solid waste management strategy’ in this country, which is that particular castes are expected to clean excreta. Have you succeeded in eradicating that in the ODF States?
In a rural context, just to put it in perspective, the focus has been on conversion of insanitary toilets — dry latrines — to sanitary ones. And work has been going on on for the last three years and the reports we have received from the States are that this conversion is complete... We are also continuously monitoring this... but reports indicate that that has been taken care of in rural India.
So you are saying that if a State has been declared ODF, it means that this conversion has taken place?
Even where Swachh Bharat has brought in sanitary toilets, if they have septic tanks or improperly built twin pits, they need to be cleaned. And it is often the former manual scavengers who are now being expected to do that. Of course, now they get paid for it. Do you think that is a move up, or…
I don’t know about specific cases. I have to tell you that one of the big outcomes of the Swachh Bharat Mission is that communities have come together. We think that the programme has actually broken these caste barriers.
The other question many people ask me is: who cleans these toilets? Households clean their toilets. These are simple toilets, it’s a rural pan, you don’t need much water and they maintain it themselves.
So we think that in many ways, this programme has not only empowered women and girls, it has actually brought communities together.
So would you see October 2, 2019 as the end of a journey or a milestone?
There’s no end to any journey in that sense. I would say it [would be] fulfilment in many ways. We would become an Open-Defecation Free India, and, of course, we would need to continue to sustain it.