May 25, 2020
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Second Nature

How does India leave the problem of open defecation behind?

Second Nature
R. Prasad
Second Nature
Long ago, in the 1960s, goes a story, a rather pucca ICS officer drove out to an Uttar Pradesh village in his domain where, as usual, he found villagers defecating in the open. When they stood up to greet him respectfully, he ordered his chaprasis to confiscate their lotas. He revisited the village a few days later to see if things had changed. They had. This time, the defecating villagers continued to squat and clung to their lotas with both hands.

Four decades later, the government seems to have found gentler ways—and the money too—to make the point. The rural development ministry's annual budget for its Total Sanitation Campaign is zooming—to Rs 800 crore for the current fiscal from Rs 165 crore in 2003-04.

Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, a starched-dhoti clad RJD leader who can spend an animated evening talking about solid waste, is already pitching for more. The man who has promised, rashly many would say, to make every Indian village free of "open defecation" by 2012, needs every paisa he can lay his hands on.

Singh has earned more middle-class approval than Laloo Prasad Yadav's confidants usually manage, for declaring that only contestants with toilets in their homes should be allowed to stand for gram panchayat elections. "A toilet or the lack of it," he says, "is the indicator of a country's health, not the GDP or the Sensex." This is not about toilet manners, he proselytises, but about 30 million people in rural areas suffering from sanitation-related diseases, and four to five lakh children dying of diarrhoea every year. And daughters and daughters-in-law being assaulted in open fields. "Izzat aur maryada ka sawal hai," the minister exhorts their unconvinced menfolk, who rather like the rush of fresh morning air on their posteriors. Meanwhile, his publicity machine comes up with advertisements showing grooms shopping for brides, and turning down those who don't have toilets in their homes.

And then there's the Nirmal Gram Puruskar, the government's cash award given to "open defecation-free" zones, ranging from Rs 2 lakh for the smallest panchayat to Rs 50 lakh for the biggest district. Not exactly Indian Idol, but still, it creates a buzz, with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam handing out awards at Rashtrapati Bhavan this March to 760 panchayats and nine blocks that qualified in 2006. Compare that number with the 38 panchayats and two blocks that made the cut in 2005, the first year of the awards, to understand why the ministry is so chuffed about the scheme.

"It's created a lot of enthusiasm," waxes minister Singh. "We got hundreds of applications. Each applying area was inspected to ensure no one defecated in the open before it qualified for the award." His ministry expects awardees to multiply manifold next year. As the countdown for 2007 begins, put your money on Midnapore or South Tripura as front-runners to become India's first open defecation-free district.

To the cynical, it sounds like another taxpayer-funded scam. After all, which Sherlock Holmes can tell where the shit trail in a village begins and ends? But Singh and his team insist that the inspections, conducted by government officials and farmed out to social research organisations and market research outfits like ORG-Marg, are rigorous.

Says a ministry official: "Children don't lie. I went to school in a Tripura panchayat that had applied and asked if anyone defecated in the open. One boy raised his hand. The application was immediately rejected." Not a job for the easily embarrassed or faint-hearted.

The awardees list makes interesting, and not entirely predictable, reading. Maharashtra is tops, West Bengal too, closely followed by Tamil Nadu. Thirteen other states have opened their accounts, including "bimarus" like Bihar and UP. The missing include IT hub Karnataka and rich Haryana and Punjab. "See, 70 per cent of rural homes in some states have TVs but not even 40 per cent have toilets," fumes Singh.

Kumar Alok, an IAS officer closely involved with the ministry's sanitation campaign, says the government's current campaign mode is finally on the right track. The success of an experiment in Midnapore in the '90s, involving UNICEF, the Ramakrishna Mission and voluntary groups, contributed to a more on-the-ground, campaign-oriented approach to rural sanitation. Research for the government by ad agency Ogilvy and Mather showed that appeals to local pride, women's personal dignity and health and hygiene would work best.

"Rs 2 lakh is nothing for a panchayat," says Alok. "It's the local pride factor that matters...the sarpanch coming to Delhi to get an award, the reports in the local papers." But the campaigns have to be finetuned, too. Diarrhoea among tribals made health arguments work in Tripura, whereas in an industrialised state like Maharashtra appeals to pride and development work best. "Sometimes you get the strangest insights," says Alok. "We asked an elderly lady in Midnapore why she installed a toilet, and the answer was, to stop her daughter-in-law from going out so often, and avoiding housework."

The new strategies have shown results, officials note, claiming that rural sanitation coverage has increased from 22 per cent in 2001 (as recorded by the census) to about 38 per cent in 2006. But even if all the people for whom the crores of new toilets have been built are using them, that still leaves about 500 million rural Indians out there squatting, everyday (what happens in urban India is a separate horror story). An awful lot to be done, not a minute to waste.
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