Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

After Rushing To Build Toilets, Modi Government Finally Crowdsources Ideas To Improve Rural Sanitation

After Rushing To Build Toilets, Modi Government Finally Crowdsources Ideas To Improve Rural Sanitation

Toilets were considered as one-stop solution to end open defecation without tackling factors like availability of water, disposal of sewage and behavioral change

Representative image

About a year ago, I was traveling in rural Agra district when I met 60-something Rashidan Bi in Bhalokhara village. It was a mid-size village with kutcha pucca houses dotting the filthy muck-filled roads of various mohallas.

Hand pumps with no proper drainage channel soaked the roads wet at few places while at others, it was the leaking overhead water tank that causes sludge on the narrow road, lined with interlocking tiles.

Rashidan Bi had told me that government officials had come about 6-8 months ago (from the time I met her), got some papers filled for her (and put her thumb impression) and promised a toilet under Swachh Bharat Mission.

“They came and one day built just three walls, reclining on my existing wall here,” she says pointing to the structure now painted as a toilet. “There is neither a sewage pit nor has the government given me any water supply line.”

Result: The structure what the government would like to call as toilet has been used as a dumping ground for cow-dung cakes. I travel a lot across India and trust me, she is not the only one to do this. Nor is Bhalokhara the only village to face such problem.

“A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in 2019,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said as he launched the Swachh Bharat Mission at Rajpath here in New Delhi on October 2, 2014. The campaign aims to achieve the vision of a ‘Clean India’ by October 2, 2019.

Modi government’s ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission, especially the rural component, has been turned into a toilet construction spree with ineffective usage percentage for various reasons. A major reason, of course, is behavioural change. This was something, experts point out, that the government should have taken care of first and then embarked on implementation.

Now, almost three years after Modi launched this much-touted campaign, the government has finally realised it is not enough. It is crowdsourcing ideas from people on basics such as monitoring usage of toilets, behavioural change and even toilet technology. If only that was done prior to the launch?

Crowdsourcing ideas:
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, MDWS, organised a Swachhathon, the Swachha Bharat Hackathon, to “crowd source solutions for the pressing issues pertaining to Sanitation.” After accepting entries from across India since August 2, the final event will be now held on Friday, September 8, 2017.

As per government’s own release, it wanted youth to come up with innovative solutions to the problems for innovative, sustainable, environmental-friendly and affordable toilet technology for hilly, dry, flood-prone and remote areas; technological solutions to monitor the usage of toilets; technological solutions for bringing behavioural change for toilet usage and hygiene; innovative models and methods to improve the operation and maintenance of school toilets; innovation solutions for menstrual health management and innovative solutions for early decomposition of faecal matter.

The MDWS has written to HRD and other ministries to involve youth and other stakeholders and come up with innovative solutions for above-mentioned points. The first – and of course, the most important – is the problem about behavioural change.

Government’s Problem Statement reads: ‘Behavioural Change is fundamental to Swachh Bharat Mission. Several interpersonal techniques through community approaches to sanitation are being used across the country to trigger behavior change. But old habits die hard. And behavior change takes time. Some people continue to defecate in the open even after having a household toilet.”

The solutions sought, the Ministry said, should be “scalable, non-coercive, socially acceptable and yield instant or immediate shift in behaviours.”

Almost everything that the government should have ideally done before launching the programme. But with a catch. On the one hand, it acknowledged that “old habits die hard and behaviour change takes time” but at the same time, expected that the solutions should “yield instant or immediate shift in behaviours.”

Achievements and IEC so far:
It is not that nothing has been achieved over three years. The dedicated website for Swachha Bharat Mission (Gramin) throws up the following statistics – since October 2, 2014:
473.81: Toilet Built (in Lakh)
28.78 %: Increase in households with toilet
192: Number of ODF districts (self-declared)
1,05,408: Number of ODF gram panchayats (self-declared)
2,34,732: Number of ODF villages (self-declared)

This gives a clear picture. 

So, in a way, it is a good achievement. Especially, considering the fact that the Census 2011 tells us that toilets were absent in 69% of rural areas, despite decades of multi-pronged efforts to improve the situation and end open defecation.

And therein lies the problem. The efforts were all aimed at building toilets only. It was considered as a one-stop solution to end open defecation without much applying mind to other factors, including two most important factors: availability of water, disposal of sewage. Even before

Even before that, an important thing was to ensure that the rural people actually used the toilets, a habit exactly opposite the open defecation practices of centuries, simply impossible to change in few days or months.

Involvement of the community as an important stakeholder was necessary from the start. Bringing upon behavioral change was to follow next. But on both counts, government efforts failed or hugely fell short.

Incidentally, improving rural sanitation has been on cards for the central government right from the first Five Year Plan (1951-56). But it was only in the late 1980s when special schemes started to be floated. Central Rural Sanitation Programme, Total Sanitation Campaign, and the recent Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan were around before the 2014 Swachh Bharat Mission.

An analysis by PRS India in 2015 had shown that a major change over Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in Swachha Bharat Mission (SBM) was that “the funds for IEC (Information, Education and Communication) was up to 8% of the total outlay under SBM-G (gramin – rural), as opposed to 15% (calculated at the district level) under the NBA.”

However, government statistics show that of that reduced component, even smaller amount was being spent on the IEC. For instance, only 1 % of the total expenditure was utilized on IEC activities till January 10, 2017, for the year 2016-17.

Apart from the IEC component, there are other problems related to implementation. Monitoring needs to go beyond uploading photos and officials need to ensure that there are no cases such as Rashidan Bi to make it as a statistical exercise only on paper. The government also needs to ensure proper technology for toilet construction so that sewage disposal does not contaminate water sources/water bodies/river or lakes, a major problem in rural areas in absence of city-like sewage network.

Government asks: ‘What is wrong in improvising?’

At every step, the government ideally needs to take on board, the community, and the local governments. Clearly, the top down approach has not helped. This is also visible in the latest hackathon components apart from behavioural change: monitoring usage; toilet technology; O&M of school toilets; technological solutions for safe disposal of menstrual waste and early decomposition of faecal matter. Again, as I said earlier, everything that the government ought to have thought before the programme was launched.

But of course, the government officials do not find it odd. “As and how things are unfolding, problems and challenges become more visible. The government should always keep reinventing. As we keep meeting problems, we ask people to come up with what they feel are the solutions.”

“For instance, the issue of menstrual hygiene has really grown bigger now more than three years ago. More people are becoming aware of it. (So) nothing wrong if we keep improvising as we proceed,” V Radha, joint secretary in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DWS), government of India.

It is constantly a work in progress. Indeed, behavior change should be a work in progress and the government should be spending more on the IEC component to constantly hammer the stakeholders about the positive results that it will bring.

(Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at or follow her on twitter at @nivedita_Him)