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Opinion | How Swachh Bharat created disruption

The Swachh Bharat team realised that, if it was to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of an open defecation free India, it had to become a disruptor

On 15 August 2014, the people of India listened as their newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, delivered his maiden Independence Day address from the Red Fort. This was a historic moment: the first time a Prime Minister of India had addressed the nation on the subject of toilets. Why, he asked, was the shameful practice of open defecation rampant in the India of the 21st century?" In his speech, he set the audacious goal of fulfilling M.K. Gandhi’s vision of a clean India by 2 October 2019, Gandhi’s 150th birthday. It was a moment of disruption.

Disruption at the implementation level

Political disruption succeeds when translated into implementational disruption. Staff at the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) sat down and started figuring out what meeting this challenge would mean. Working with states to change age-old habits of 550 million people and building 110 million toilets with only 1,825 days to do it in seemed an impossible task. One thing they knew: business as usual was not going to do the trick. They would have to start by changing age-old habits in their own back yards.

Governments the world over have fixed patterns of behaviour and those habits are controlled by a number of factors. The routines of office work are pretty much the same—the 9 am start, the tea break, the lunch break, and the 5 pm close of business. All officials know their role, their job, and how it fits in the hierarchy of other roles in the organization. The objects they use are the same everywhere. Piles of files lie on real or virtual desktops, waiting to be processed using real or virtual writing instruments.

In short, most of what happens in offices is completely predictable. This is because an office is what is known as a behaviour setting, where established roles, routines, rules and objects govern daily activity. No one has to think much about what they are doing and behaviour runs on auto-pilot. Any deviation from the established pattern is met with correction, disapproval, or some other form of sanction.

New roles were created by bringing in young blood to take on new functions in the mission-

The Swachh Bharat team realised that if it was to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of an open defecation free (ODF) India it had to become a disruptor; it had to change something in the behaviour settings of fellow government officials throughout India.

So the team members set to work. First they redefined their own roles. Instead of seeing the team as simply government workers they started working in mission-mode, with one objective, to make India ODF by 2019. New roles were created by bringing in young blood to take on new functions, such as agile planning, communications, social media and rapid feedback on progress to districts. A new army of Swachhagrahis was recruited and trained to trigger behaviour change concerning toilets in thousands of villages.

Back in the ministry, no longer did normal office routines apply. SBM staff found themselves in the building at dawn, often leaving late at night. Lunch breaks became informal seminars on the topic of toilets. The office itself was discarded as a work setting with a large number of days spent on the road and in remote rural districts, to spur them on. Rules were broken. For example, the secretary shocked observers when he volunteered to empty toilets himself, showing how the twin pit design worked to neutralise toilet wastes. Instead of following the rule book, districts were encouraged to make it up for themselves, spurring grassroots innovation, mass mobilization events, and sharing inspiring individual stories of people who had made their villages ODF.

Did disrupting government settings work?

Of the 110 million households that had no toilets in 2014, a reported 85 million households have now constructed them, taking the national rural sanitation coverage to over 95% . More than 450 million people have stopped defecating in the open. If the government can reach its stated goal of 100% toilet coverage by next year, the World Health Organization estimates that the mission will have saved over 300,000 lives.

So it is fitting that Swachh Bharat is celebrating this extraordinary success in the 150th birth year of Gandhi. The occasion will be marked by an international convention in New Delhi on 2 October with Modi and the UN secretary general and ministers from over 50 countries. The participants will hear that disruption of business-as-usual has been key in the Swachh Bharat story and that this has mobilised millions to care about, and act upon, this most unlikely of causes.

The lesson in the success of Swachh Bharat

Much of our daily behaviour is routine, standard, unchanging and unthinking, deeply embedded in the behaviour settings of everyday life. These fixed patterns can be hard to change. But if we want to make a difference, whether in our personal or in our professional lives, we need to find disruption points. We need to change the objects, places, roles or rules that keep us on autopilot and tell us what to do. Then, and only then, can we achieve audacious, transformative goals for ourselves, or for our nations

(Val Curtis is a professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

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