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Open defecation: time we gave a shit

chandigarh Updated: Feb 07, 2014 14:57 IST
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Most of us have at least "seen" it, if not "been party to it" ever. The practice of open defecation-common in the rural areas and urban slums-being accepted as "part of our culture", never seemed to bother us really before. However, with the contraction of "open" spaces in the rural areas and the increasing population density in cities, "shit" now refuses to get "out of sight, out of mind".

Official figures quote toilet coverage (access to facility) in rural India at 72%, in spite of which, 69% Indians continue to defecate in the open, indicating that there is no correlation between the access to and the usage of toilets. Sanitation is linked closely with poor health, low education, malnutrition and poverty. Nearly 1,000 children die of diarrhoea every day in India. The total economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India was estimated in 2006 to be `2.44-lakh crore, 6.4% of the country's GDP (gross domestic product).

The cause

Why does this practice continue? Let us realise that the women in rural India are neither happy about this "social custom" not deaf to the lewd comments passed during. The plight of pregnant women is their alone. The poverty-cause theory is also incorrect. The "poor", once triggered into action, adopt safe sanitation readily, while the "rich" debate and wait for "subsidy". The poverty theory not only incapacitates the poor further by making them dependent on outside support but also shifts the focus to "toilets constructed against the money spent" as opposed to "clean villages" achieved.

The real cause is behavioural. I may "know" something is bad but still may not change it because I've not "realised" it could be "bad for me". Sanitation is for collective public good. For health benefits, it is important that the entire village/community stops open defecation, because even a single person's excreta can pollute the entire common drinking water source.

Success rate

What is being done to address the issue, and how successful have we been? Since 1951, the Indian government has spent close to `1.57-lakh crore on water and sanitation in rural India through various programmes. The Total Sanitation Campaign (rechristened Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan) claims to have constructed 8.7-crore toilets across Indian villages over the past decade. The 2011 census results, however, show the number to be 5.2 crore (including toilets built much earlier), indicating that at the very least, 3.5-crore toilets have gone missing.

India has twice revised her goal to achieve the open-defecation-free (ODF) status: from 2012 to 2015 initially and now to 2022. In contrast, her smaller, less developed neighbours Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka aim to achieve it by 2015, 2017, and 2020, respectively.

What's not working

Two things seem to have outlived their value. One, the typical IEC (information, education and communication); and two, individual household subsidy. The typical IEC informs people about what they are aware of already or what doesn't matter to them. It fails to convert awareness into action and information into actual behaviour change. Individual subsidy kills the initiatives of collective change.

The solutions

We need to do three things. First, focus on the ODF communities instead of individual toilets. This community may be a habitation in a rural area or a well-defined locality in an urban zone. Let us stop counting individual household toilets as physical-progress target and go on to collective approach.

Two, promote participative techniques such as Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) instead of the the traditional IEC. The CLTS has evolved tools that help trigger collective response by facilitating self-analysis of the situation. The tools invoke "disgust" through processes such as the "walk of shame". The facilitator takes the villagers to the very place of open defecation tactfully and holds discussion in the midst of all that shit (with a crowd of men and women covering its noses). The process starts as tamasha and ends up making people conclude that they are eating own shit and that this must change, and they must change it themselves. Invariably, during the discussion, "natural leaders" emerge within the community, who carry on the process from within.

The real challenge however, is not the construction of toilet but its sustained usage. To avoid the risk of "slipping", it is essential that the community is observed for six months after its attaining the ODF status. Like any other skill, facilitation can be learnt with exposure and practice. The challenge and opportunity however, are in creating many organisations with this skill by conducting massive training programmes. The young IAS officers in charge of the district and urban development affairs as well as the people's representatives in local bodies need to be exposed to this wonderful approach.

Three, replace individual household subsidy with community incentive, once it achieves the ODF status. The savings from individual household subsidies can be given to the community in a dignified and flexible way. The issue has to get priority on the development agenda, and it should be as glamorous to talk about and work on "shit" as it is on "growth and infrastructure". Once sanitation is understood as priority and begins to be mentioned in important political speech and high-level review, the message will trickle down.

Dr Nipun Vinayak is an IAS officer and a practitioner of participative development. Views expressed are personal.