Home >opinion >Swachh Bharat Mission a misguided approach to ending open defecation

Almost one year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) as he swept the streets of Valmiki Colony in New Delhi and committed to build over 110 million toilets. One would think that a programme that aims to eliminate open defecation by 2019 would be consistently counting the number of people who defecate in the open. But the only comprehensive SBM data available is about how much money has been spent and how many toilets have been constructed.

For lack of any publicly available data on SBM’s progress towards achieving its goal, we decided to collect some data on our own. What we found suggests that there is still a long way to go.

In August, we visited two villages, one in Rajasthan and one in Uttar Pradesh, to try to understand how the SBM was working. We specifically sought out the success stories.

For each state, administrative data was used to select a district that had spent at least five times the state average on information, education and communication (IEC) per open defecator since the launch of the programme in October 2014. Within these districts, we selected villages where the greatest fraction of households without toilets had received government support for building latrines since the beginning of 2014-15. We talked to 29 randomly selected households in all, and collected sanitation behaviour for 215 individuals.

Administrative data off the mark

In Rajasthan, we chose a village which the data suggested had received government support for more than 150 latrines so far in 2015-16. However, not a single household we interviewed in the village said they had received any money from the government in the past year. Even the son of the sarpanch, or village leader, on conditions of anonymity, told us that the village had not received any sanitation funds since the SBM started.

To be sure, the administrative data may be recording latrines for which applications for SBM funding are in process. But the sarpanch’s son showed us SBM application forms which had images of different people standing in front of the same latrine. So there is high likelihood that the administrative numbers are inflated.

In Uttar Pradesh, the administrative data on construction seemed consistent with what we saw on the ground. However, the district coordinator told us, on conditions of anonymity, that there is substantial pressure to meet construction targets, and he has at times fudged the data he reports.

Meanwhile, ministry of drinking water and sanitation data suggests over 8 million toilets have been constructed since SBM was launched.

Many defecate in the open despite having a latrine

Corruption in latrine construction, however, is only a minor problem compared with the programme’s misguided focus on the number of toilets built rather than latrine use. Defecating in the open despite having a latrine is common.

Of 29 households surveyed, 23 had some kind of toilet, and 16 had toilets built using government support. Half the government-supported latrines were not being used by anyone at all. And these were two of the most successful villages.

Different methods produce same poor results

Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh implement the SBM in different ways. In Rajasthan, households build latrines themselves and then apply for a reimbursement of 12,000 through the SBM. In Uttar Pradesh, the pradhan, or village leader, administers the funds and generally hires a mason to construct toilets for most, or all, of the households in the village at one time.

Because of India’s unique history of caste and untouchability, people associate emptying a latrine pit with manual scavenging. So when rural Indians build latrines, they tend to build ones with very large pits that require emptying infrequently, if at all. The cost of these latrines is often much more than 12,000.

In the Rajasthan village, the households which had toilets had spent an average 22,000 to build them. Because a latrine that is acceptable to rural Indians is costly, not many households can afford to build them, and not many households in the Rajasthan village have one.

In the village in Uttar Pradesh, however, the pradhan had constructed latrines costing 12,000 or less for almost every household in the village. These latrines have comparatively smaller pits, and because of concerns about pit emptying, are shunned by most villagers.

This doesn’t mean that the government should increase its subsidy any more than it already has. What this micro study shows is that although these differences in implementation lead to variations in coverage and types of latrines, neither the demand-driven model employed in Rajasthan nor the supply-driven model used in Uttar Pradesh appear to be successful at accelerating the adoption of latrine use.

In Rajasthan, just a few wealthy households, who in most cases would have built anyways, are building latrines that they will use, and in Uttar Pradesh, both rich and poor households have latrines, but neither group uses them much.

We need a nationwide latrine use survey

The prevalence of open defecation despite having a latrine has been documented in many studies across rural India. What is notable here is that these are seemingly successful villages in districts which claim to have spent a lot on communicating sanitation messages to villagers and changing their behaviour. Apparently, behaviours have not changed, as part II of this series will explore.

What’s equally distressing is that even though the goal of the SBM is to eliminate open defecation and programme guidelines call for a latrine use survey, there is still no plan to collect such data even a year after the programme was launched. Recent media reports have mentioned that the National Sample Survey Organization has been tasked with conducting a third-party review, but will that be the ongoing latrine use monitoring we need?

Nikhil Srivastav is research and policy manager and Sangita Vyas is managing director for Sanitation at research institute for compassionate economics (r.i.c.e.)

This is the first of a two-part series on Swachh Bharat Mission based on a micro study conducted by researchers at r.i.c.e. Part II talks about behavioural changes.

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