Home / Companies / Sanitation is not just about building toilets

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call in 2014 to end open defecation in India by 2019 saw many companies allocating a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to the cause. Two years on, it is unclear what activities were undertaken, how much money was spent and the states that benefited the most from the so-called Water and Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) programmes under CSR.

Samhita Social Ventures Pvt. Ltd, a social sector consultancy, has now attempted to track such activities and specific geographies that benefited in its report titled ‘CSR in WASH’, which will be released on Thursday.

The key findings of the Samhita report, shared with Mint, confirm what has so far been speculation—that firms concentrated on infrastructure and not on aspects such as behaviour change, which are equally important to achieve a ‘Clean India’.

Priya Naik, founder and CEO of Samhita, believes the focus on construction of toilets partly stems from the manner in which the government has defined the problem and solution to sanitation, which is narrowly confined to infrastructure. “Government needs to look beyond firms just providing money and tap their expertise in areas such as management, innovation, etc.," she said.

The report, written in collaboration with the India Sanitation Coalition (ISC) headed by former HSBC India chairperson Naina Lal Kidwai, has analysed publicly available information (annual reports, media announcements and information on company websites) of the top 100 spenders from the top 500 BSE-listed companies.

ISC, established in 2015, is a common platform intended bring together various stakeholders in the sanitation space.

As per the CSR Rules, notified in 2014, organizations with a net worth of 500 crore or a revenue of 1,000 crore or a net profit of 5 crore need to spend 2% of their average profit in the past three years on social development-related activities listed in Schedule VII of the Rules.

The report said 90 of the 100 companies had at least one WASH project out of a total of 164 such projects. But 75% of them are involved in creating infrastructure. Among the states with the most companies engaged in WASH-related CSR activities are Maharashtra with 17 firms reporting projects in the state, Uttar Pradesh with 16 firms and Rajasthan with 15. North-eastern states and Jammu & Kashmir were ignored despite high rates of open defecation. Of the firms that published geographical locations for WASH projects, the report says 52% were focused in rural areas, 31% in mixed regions and 17% in urban areas. Forty-five of 46 heavy engineering and manufacturing firms in the selected sample of top CSR spenders list are involved in WASH projects, followed by all five fast moving consumer goods companies.

“The good news is that toilets have been built. Now, we need to focus on making communities use these toilets, ensure operationality, maintenance and repair," said Kidwai. She explained that often toilets in remote villages become store rooms or never get used due to social biases.

The report put down companies’ lack of interest in behaviour change programmes to such activities being considered high risk in the sense that they cannot be quantified, require long gestation periods and are not easy to measure in terms of impact.

A few companies that have undertaken behaviour change as part of their WASH initiatives appear to have largely been tokenistic in their approach, the report suggested. Some 20% of the spenders worked on generating awareness regarding the importance of hygiene, which is not the same as behaviour change, it said. Another gapping hole is that only 15% companies reported that they have made repair and maintenance of toilets part of their CSR projects.

Kanika Verma, deputy programme director at Development Alternatives, a research and action organization, emphasised the need to go beyond construction of toilets. Citing examples of existing defunct toilets, Verma said the organization was approached by many firms looking to construct toilets but it refused and only took up projects that addressed sanitation holistically.

Kidwai believes one of the key reasons for the lack of impact in sanitation even after two years of corporate efforts is that the efforts are fragmented and isolated. She said that ISC intends to work with stakeholders and focus on the build, use, maintain and treat model of sanitation along with ushering in change of behaviour.

The need for a shift in approach to CSR-WASH projects is being recognised by many firms. For instance, Nitish Kapoor, regional director, RB (Reckitt Benckiser) South Asia, said, “ is more important to first create demand by changing the behaviour and attitude of people towards using a toilet facility. A lot of people are still defecating in the open not because they lack access to sanitation facilities, but because it has become a socially acceptable tradition or they are not aware of the ill-effects of this on their health and hygiene."

According to him, RB’s CSR initiatives are designed to build awareness and change behaviour.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, a not-for-profit that pioneered an indigenous model of public toilets decades ago, agrees with Kidwai. “Without follow-up, sanitation projects don’t work," he said.

Unwilling to comment on efforts of other agencies, Pathak said Sulabh is currently working with 39 corporate partners and because of its integrated model of behaviour change, waste treatment and community involvement, the projects are guaranteed long-term useability and longevity.

The report points to the need for a holistic approach to WASH, one that addresses value chain, lifecycle, key stakeholders and involves course correction to expand the scope where necessary to achieve the goal of making India open-defection free by 2019. It also recommends that not-for-profits who work in the field look at increasing community participation and ownership to increase longevity of such projects.

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