In 2019, India will observe the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave the clarion call, “Clean up your own mess.” But even 67 years after Independence, our cities and towns present a sorry picture replete with mounds of garbage, rotting sewers and children defecating in the open. Can the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2, Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, do what nearly 30 years of sanitation schemes have not been able to do in independent India?
The funding numbers for sanitation programmes have been impressive. Since 1986, India has spent over Rs. 18,000 crore on what are essentially toilet-building schemes — the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, followed by the Total Sanitation Campaign and then the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA) will be a significant jump forward — to build the 11.11 crore toilets that the government needs to cover every household, it will spend every year nearly double the amount the government has spent cumulatively over the past 25 years.
In just one year, spending on rural toilet-building will multiply seven times and rival the government’s outlay on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
What has systematically been less impressive is the bang Indians are getting for their buck. More than half the households in the country still lack access to sanitation. In its villages, some toilets built under past schemes exist only on paper — in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district, villages this correspondent visited, which were awarded “Nirmal Gram” titles by the President for being free of open defecation, had no toilets for any members of Dalit bastis. In their study of 3,200 households in five States, scholars from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) found that 80 per cent of the households reported having constructed toilets spending their own funds.
This, the government promises, will change now. “The Prime Minister has made it a priority, and that message is not lost on government staff. There will be more supervision now,” a senior SBA official told The Hindu . The de-linking of the MGNREGS from toilet-building is a step towards ensuring better compliance, the official said. While the MGNREGS paid for half the Rs. 10,000 subsidy given to households for rural toilets in the past, now the entire amount will come from the sanitation mission. “MGNREGS payments are extremely delayed. That has, of course, put the rural employment guarantee scheme in trouble, but it was also causing problem for Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan,” a District Magistrate in Rajasthan said. Apart from this, there are no substantive changes yet in how the money will be spent, or how the implementation monitored, the Delhi-based SBA official said.
Behavioural change The other thing that will change, the government says, is an emphasis on behavioural change. Over the last year, a series of research studies have shown that not everyone who gets a toilet uses it — 40 per cent of the households with access to toilets had at least one family member not using it, economists from RICE found in a five-State study.
The government says this will change. “Building toilets and effecting behaviour change — these are the two prongs of the strategy,” Sandhya Singh, Joint Director of the SBA (Rural), said. Yet, as RICE economist Payal Hathi points out, funding for the information, education and communication segment of the scheme has fallen from 15 per cent to 8 per cent as a proportion of total funds spent.
“With the SBA, this new government has the opportunity to do things differently and put India on a better trajectory … the government will need to increase its capacity to carry out the important work of changing people’s attitudes about latrine use, and make clear that the use of latrines is more important than simply constructing them,” Ms. Hathi said.
Following its research on toilet use in 45 gram panchayats in Davangere in Karnataka, Arghyam, a Bangalore-based water and sanitation group, began to work with behaviour architecture firm FinalMile Consulting on why people were not using toilets and how to fix this reluctance. One of the issues they found was of toilet structures.
“We have seen that toilets in the currently accepted designs are cramped, dark and unfriendly structures and spaces. Windows are small and don’t let light in,” Radhika Viswanathan, project officer at Arghyam, said. The organisation has begun to look into innovative ways to make the toilet more user-friendly. But whether this is cost-effective to do on a national scale is unclear; RICE researchers point out that toilets in Nepal and Bangladesh are far more basic and cheaper, yet widely used.
But Gandhiji’s vision of a clean India cannot be achieved by a purely toilet-centric approach to sanitation alone. It is not going to deliver the health benefits that better sanitation should.