Earlier this year, the government of India’s flagship sanitation intervention, Total Sanitation Campaign, was rechristened as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). In the last few months, multiple policy announcements by Union minister Jairam Ramesh, his lament regarding India’s abysmal sanitation statistics and endorsements by celebrity ambassadors have been efforts to spread the word.
However, those who expected a clear expression of policy-intent and innovative implementation strategies are probably disappointed with the end-product. The new scheme does little by way of increasing the government’s financial commitment on the ground; and that the new guidelines have little new to say about institutional convergence on the ground or about enhancing sustainability of the outputs of this programme. It must be mentioned though that the guidelines acknowledge the need for quality with references to a ‘toilet unit with a superstructure’—and for this they must be appreciated. However, there is very little clarity on how this new avatar of the sanitation campaign will be operationalized in the field.
First, the matter of the increased individual household latrine (IHHL) incentive—the word has spread far and wide that the incentive has increased to Rs.4,600 and will be supplemented by an additional Rs.4,400 through a convergence with MGNREGS. Where implemented this would mean a near three-fold increase in the government-sponsored incentive for sanitation. The reality however is far removed from this rosy scenario. For one, the NBA conveniently ignores the bitter blow dealt by the 2011 census, where sanitation statistics were found inflated by at least 35 million. The government is clear that households that have benefited from the government programme once (irrespective of whether they were beneficiaries just on paper) would not be eligible for any further assistance. There is a window of opportunity for these households in the form of the funds for renovation from the proposed convergence with MGNREGS. So far though, hardly anyone on the ground has any clue as to how this convergence is to be operationalized. Also, sanitation falls under the public health engineering department. while MGNREGS falls under the rural development department. This is a significant obstacle to any operational convergence.
Secondly, the guidelines claim to build on the success of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP). This so-called success is questionable, given that the ministry has learnt some hard lessons through the NGP. Sample this—in its third year (2008), NGP awards were handed out to 12,038 gram panchayats. However, following enhanced scrutiny of the applications in the subsequent years, the NGP awardees fell to 4,556 in 2009 and further to around 2800 in both 2010 and 2011. Clearly, as many had feared, NGPs were being handed out to undeserving gram panchayats that had not yet achieved total sanitation, but had somehow managed to get the paper-work through. Of course, its not just the gram panchayats involved that are in the wrong—it is the chain of officials in the block, district and state-levels above, who were hand-in-glove with vested interests in clocking higher numbers. Naturally, there are allegations of the existence of a rate-card for NGP ratification. Together with the Census 2011 expose, toilet-gate may well be the next multi-crore scam that dominates the airwaves.
Third, is the issue of local leadership—the NBA guidelines talk of a gram panchayat-coverage approach in an environment where district-level babus have little faith in the Panchayati Raj. Once again, the Panchayati Raj department in many states is content to spend the minuscule funds that come through the backward region grant fund (BRGF). At best, they anchor village, block and district-level planning exercises which are usually limited to the extent of the BRGF funds. To expect that gram panchayats will assume a leadership role (broader than that of a works contractor) is to hope that there is active Panchayati Raj in districts, with a purposive district planning committee and a district water and sanitation mission (DWSM) that respects these local institutions. Once again, this appears to be a distant dream, with DWSMs being highly individual-oriented and seeming heavily dependent on the level of interest shown in them by the district collector.
These are a few areas where further explanations are required from the government on the details and operationalization of the NBA guidelines. Local implementation continues to suffer due to the inaction of state-level departments in the absence of greater clarity on these issues. Here’s hoping that in the coming weeks, the ministry demonstrates a clear intent to move beyond the hype and outline implementation strategies for the field.