On October 2 last year the Prime Minister raised the nation’s consciousness by launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and highlighting the need to build toilets.
While it inspires us all to work towards achieving the goals of sanitation with renewed vigour, it also challenges us as citizens of the country, individually as well as jointly, to work towards delivering the goals set by the government for 2019 to be Open Defecation Free (ODF).
Various government departments down to the gram panchayat are working towards this, creating a ripple effect. To bring about the paradigm shift required and create a wave of behavioural change around sanitation, a lot needs to be done in the next four years through a joint effort of all stakeholders.
Over the years in many parts of the country silent revolutions have been going on transforming people’s perception and behaviour on sanitation while making more toilets available concomitant with behavioural change.
The transformation of Nadia in West Bengal becoming an ODF district demonstrates that sanitation for all can become a reality. It will be critical to ensure that usage and community engagement continues. Examples of community toilets working well in the slums of Dharavi need to be replicated.
Similar good practices and technological innovations exist in the sanitation sector across the country.
Such local solutions need to be scaled up and technologies upgraded to have an impact of the magnitude that India needs going ahead.
Developing and promoting standards for constructing toilets is another area of prime focus to ensure long-term sustainable asset creation.
India needs a cadre of masons, plumbers, architects and sanitation experts without whom there will be a huge lacuna in the delivery mechanism. Going forward the opportunity of also providing large employment and having skilled workers in different parts of the country is huge.
The sanitation space in India presents some unique challenges intertwined with the complexities of caste and cultural practices.
The preference in large geographies for open defecation despite fully functional toilets being available in the vicinity highlights the complexities of age-old traditions deep-rooted in the cultural milieu of India.
The differential impact of poor sanitation practices and infrastructure on maternal and child health and safety is well documented. Repeated diarrhoea caused by open defecation leads to ‘stunting’, which affects the child’s physical and mental development, affecting the productivity of our people.
Unfortunately, there is an almost complete lack of awareness of the health aspects of open defecation. The exceptions to the rule are touted – “my grandfather who is over 80 years has been going to the fields since his childhood, and he’s fine”.
Also missing from the popular discourse is the need to build an ecosystem for sanitation that involves market creation for service provision, products, technologies and institutional capacities for standards and certification.
After all, the entire advocacy around behavioural change needs to be strongly backed up with a robust ecosystem that can take care of the build-use-maintain-treat value chain.
From the time the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan captured the nation’s imagination, a lot has been written and said about what a practical strategy for India must look like.
While there is a consensus on the areas of action, there is need for more collaboration and coordination among stakeholders.
This would increase efficiency, prevent reinventing the wheel and, therefore, increase the impact. A coherent force to tie the loose threads together and connect the dots is the need of the hour.
The power of multiples that can be created by galvanising the joint force of government, corporates, civil society, practitioners, media, communities and societies at large cannot be overstated.
This is what the India Sanitation Coalition, inaugurated by Birender Singh, Union minister for drinking water and sanitation, on June 25, aims to do, as a catalyst, facilitator and galvaniser.
The concept of this coalition was initiated around the end of 2013 by a group of people from different organisations engaged in the sanitation space.
The very philosophy of the coalition embodies the principles of build, use, maintain and treat, signifying a holistic approach to sanitation rather than a mere emphasis on toilet construction. It endeavours to institutionalise this integrated approach in the way sanitation is perceived in the country.
Coalitions have the power to create, enable and bring a momentum to endeavours of significant proportion and scale. The power of coming together as one is far greater than the power of doing things alone.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has presented us with a historic opportunity and the formation of this coalition is a timely initiative that underscores the importance India assigns to sanitation and cleanliness.
We do believe we can together make a huge difference.
Naina Lal Kidwai is past president, FICCI, and Rashid Kidwai is coordinator, India Sanitation Coalition
The views expressed are personal