Beyond Toilet Construction – Challenges for Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban)
By Devashish Deshpande, 28 Dec 2016

Can constructing toilets end open defecation if they are not used? What might seem like a facetious question is actually of critical importance to India’s flagship sanitation programme.

It has now been two years since the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched, and 30 years since India recognised Sanitation as an issue needing active government intervention with the formulation of the Central Rural Sanitation Programme. Despite a steady march of over two decades, the SBM was lauded as a giant leap forward, and rightly so.

Arguably for the first time, the SBM acknowledged the equivalence of urban and rural sanitation. Furthermore, the diversification of success indicators promised a progressive and holistic approach. For example, the urban mission guidelines expressly state the need to target sustainable behaviour change through concerted Information, Education, and Communication (IEC) campaigns. And while 100% access to sanitary toilets remains a prerequisite, it is not seen as an end in itself.

Even the most inveterate cynic would find little to criticise about the principles on which the SBM is based. This does however mean that the Ministry of Urban Development, and State and local governments, have a difficult challenge to meet these raised expectations by 2019. It would not be inopportune to consider their progress at this juncture.

As of December 2016, over 27 Lakh Household toilets and more than 1.28 Lakh Community toilet blocks, have been constructed under the urban mission. Despite significant state variations, this amounts to 35% of toilet construction target in 40% of mission period, which the government opines is “broadly on course”. But toilet availability is understood by the mission as a necessary but not a sufficient precondition to ending open defecation. It knows that building toilets does not equal ending open defecation, and yet, the implementation of the programme does not reveal this insight.

Informal conversations with government officials, across levels, find that the focus thus far has been on driving the administration to meet toilet construction targets. This is being done using all means, fair and foul. An Accountability Initiative survey conducted across 5 states last year, reveals that the MIS numbers are not inoculated against inaccuracies and overreporting, which government officers acknowledge informally. Still, even assuming that the numbers are verified, does it mean that urban India is 35% along the way to being open defecation free? Not quite.

Several factors, practical and cultural, inhibit toilet usage, especially over a period. Lack of water and sewerage connections, poor construction quality and lax maintenance, difficulties with managing faecal sludge, all combine to either prevent toilets from being used consistently, or force people to relapse into open defecation as the toilets become unusable. Research on the subject finds that in households which have gained access to toilets for the first time in the recent past, one or more members of the households, often children and men, resort to open defecation.

This reinforces the need for IEC, which is government parlance for social and behaviour change communications (SBCC). The mission recognizes this, and earmarks as much as 15% of the outlay for this component, with 12% to be granted to the states for the purpose, in the guidelines. Thus far however, this has only been on paper. IEC expenditure was 4% of total expenditure in 2014-15, which was further reduced to 1% over the next year. In 2016-17, towards the end of the third financial quarter, a little more than Rs 40 crores has been released by the centre to 7 states under this head, which is about 1.75% of the total SBM Urban budget for the year. Barring a mad rush to reach out to people in the final quarter, it is unlikely that the targeted 345 Crores will be spent.

These numbers tell us only half the story, ignoring the qualitative aspects of the issue, and as worrying as the numbers might be, there are more reasons for concern. To begin with, it must be understood that SBCC is studied and practiced by organizations around the globes, many of whom are partnering with the Government of India on this and other issues. There is thus a rich repository of case studies and best practices for India to learn from. To that extent, there is no need to invent the wheel, but there is a need to use it correctly. For example, SBCC best practices advocate an integrated and strategic approach focussing not only on individual behaviour change, but on social norms. It advices a judicious mix of mass media, mid media, interpersonal communications, and attention to building capacity. Most importantly, there is a need to understand that SBCC is not a PR exercise.

None of this is a revelation. And while the SBM Urban guidelines are sketchy on IEC strategy, the rural guidelines go into significant details to emphasise just these aspects. And yet, SBM IEC spending seems to be limited to only mechanical tasks such as plastering the SBM logo across village walls and printing pamphlets, or for organizing events. These might aid the brand recognition of the mission, but are unlikely to inform, educate, or communicate. Other initiatives such as the concept of Swachagrahis, were created keeping in mind the importance of interpersonal communications. But as of now, only about 19,431 Swachagrahis have been ‘identified’ according to government data, of whom 6500 are in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh alone. West Bengal, for example, has only 15 Swachagrahis, which is less than the number identified in Chandigarh. The reach and impact of these Swacchagrahis can only be evaluated when enough of them are working on the ground. As of now, there aren’t.

So why is the SBM lagging? Much of the responsibility must be shouldered by the states, and the vast disparity in levels of implementation does indicate this. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the approach itself. Political pressure and high visibility in a thus far ignored sector are heartening, but their unanticipated fallout can be the sacrifice of quality and thoroughness at the altar of monthly targets. The SBM guidelines set high standards of performance. It is essential to ensure that they aren’t rendered solely aspirational.