2016 has been a busy year for the country’s sanitation officials. According to government expenditure data, the centre had spent 89% of its annual budget by early January. Importantly, the goal post has shifted. The measure of success has moved from the mere construction of toilets to achieving “open defecation free" (ODF) status and village after village have been busy trying to meet this goal. Between April 2016 and January 2017, the total number of villages that had declared themselves ODF more than doubled from 49,599 in 2015-16 to 146,775. Two states, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh joined Sikkim to achieve the status of being ODF states. In 2015, not a single village in Kerala was ODF. By October 2016, the entire state had achieved this distinction. And to enable this, toilet construction activity increased significantly. The state reported construction of 165,898 toilets in the month of October alone.

So is this increased activity leading to genuine change on the ground? This is a difficult question to answer. For one, rigorous third-party evaluation data is scant and the annual latrine usage survey has only just begun. Moreover for data that is tracked, like toilet construction, quality is an issue. In 2015, Accountability Initiative studied the government data on toilet construction to find several inconsistencies including duplication of names and misreporting. Our field survey revealed that as many as 1/3rd households reported to have toilet in the government database, didn’t actually have them. Regardless, there is little argument that achieving ODF is top priority and there isn’t a district in the country where sanitation activities are not being implemented. This race to achieve ODF offers crucial lessons for implementing sanitation policy and achieving outcomes.

It could well be argued that the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is a textbook case of near perfect conditions for policy success. High-level political commitment; time-bound mission-focused targets and a clearly defined commitment to a measurable outcome—ODF. But, there is one critical missing ingredient—the lack of institutional capacity at the grassroots to deliver sanitation services. And this is the key binding constraint to achieving Swachh Bharat.

Let me explain. Political visibility has brought with it serious pressure to meet targets. District collectors are being monitored frequently resulting in a competition to meet targets, at speed. This is hardly something to complain about—after all for a bureaucracy infamous for its lethargy and apathy, most would argue that pressure and targets are the only way to get things done. But in the absence of corresponding investments in administrative capacity, these targets have created conditions for a race to the top that undermines the core objectives of the programme. For the last few months, Accountability Initiative researchers have been following the ODF process in several villages in Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. In all these states, as officers joined the ODF race, penalization of citizens, rather than awareness raising and demand creation, has become the preferred tool to achieve success. In one state, we found district orders threatening to cut off electricity and ration supplies for households that refused to build toilets.

In others, government financial incentives are being withheld until village-level construction targets are met; fines are being imposed and reluctant households are being coaxed to take loans to build toilets since government money is given after construction.

While threatening citizens may enable officials to participate in the ODF race, everything that we know about sanitation tells us that ODF will only be achieved and sustained when communities demand sanitation facilities rather than be coaxed and threatened into building them! And here’s the irony, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued the clarion call for Swachh Bharat, he asked the people of India to join him in a movement for sanitation. For the moment, rather than being active participants, citizens have been reduced to reluctant spectators.

To be fair to the bureaucracy, in the current architecture, penalization may well be the only option to meet targets. Experience from around the world, including some states in India, highlight that collective action through intensive community mobilization, repeated interactions with civil society and community organizations, and innovation are the key ingredients to success. This approach is the anti-thesis of the top-down guideline driven, technocratic approach that bureaucrats are trained in and that the SBM has adopted. Experience also highlights that sustained community engagement, at scale, is most effective when local governments become active stakeholders in the ODF movement. But this requires long-term investments in local governments—a process made impossible with high pressured targets. In fact, our initial explorations suggest that sanitation officials have not received any specific training in community mobilization and the ODF race is being run through orders and checklists.

For the moment, the assumption seems to be that top-down targets, slick advertising with Bollywood stars and helicoptering in teams of volunteers from the outside can substitute for building local institutional capacity and community engagement. But their reach is limited. A phone survey conducted by RICE economists in July 2016 found only 2.6% respondents in rural Uttar Pradesh and 5.4% in Delhi were aware that SBM promotes toilet use. One reason for this is the lack of on-ground engagement. A survey by Accountability Initiative in December 2015 found that less than 10% respondents had heard of an awareness programme on sanitation being conducted in the village and only 3% had been visited by government or Panchayat officials to discuss sanitation.

For years, the argument has been that high-level political commitment is essential to achieving total sanitation. Yet, in the absence of serious investments in local state capacity on the ground, India may hold the dubious distinction of political will coming in the way of getting important work done. If PM Modi is serious about achieving his 2019 target, then he needs to spend the next two years, pressuring his officers to strengthen state capacity and empower local governments rather than chase illusive ODF targets.

Yamini Aiyar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and director of the Accountability Initiative.