Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resounding call for Swachh Bharat has reminded the nation of something that lies at the very heart of nation building. Despite the fact that over the last two decades government after government has ushered in several initiatives like the Total Sanitation Programme (1999-2012) and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (2012-22), the focus on sanitation and hygiene has never been so intense.
Rural household sanitation has traditionally proved to be the biggest stumbling block before the government. Today India leads the world in open defecation, with about 600 million defecating in the open every day, accounting for about 60% of open defecation in the world. Earlier initiatives in rural sanitation had suffered both in terms of inadequate expansion in household toilet facilities and lack of public eagerness to get rid of the habit of open defecation. In fact, the size of our rural population practising open defecation increased by about eight million in absolute terms between 2001 and 2011. This clearly proves that in order to be successful, the campaign this time round needs to focus as much on infrastructure development as on awareness and behavioural change. The biggest reason behind the limited success of the Total Sanitation Programme and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan lies in their inability to drive home the importance of sanitation to trigger the required behavioural change.
Resistance to changing toilet habits in rural areas is a pan-Indian phenomenon, emanating directly or indirectly from misperceived health reasons and religious beliefs. Many consider constructing toilets in their household premises inauspicious. Similarly, there are others who consider open defecation to be healthier. These beliefs could perhaps be more complex in low-literacy states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh.
Merely creating academic awareness about sanitation in schools, colleges and offices or for that matter creating new facilities at these places won’t help us drive such behavioural change. Many schools in rural areas, for instance, have toilets but many students fail to imbibe the values of good sanitation in the absence of basic toilet facilities in their homes. Hence, sustained and strategic communication is clearly going to be the most important factor to drive change in collective behaviour.
It has generally been observed that children have a powerful influence both on their family members and the communities they live in. Thus rural schools can easily turn into fountainheads of cultural change in their neighbourhoods. Children from Satya Bharti Schools, run by Bharti Foundation, have successfully campaigned against many social evils like child marriage, substance abuse, alcoholism and untouchability with a great deal of success. Such a school-centric campaign can be replicated in other parts of the country. The idea of sanitation needs to be nurtured well at the grassroots and given the positive sentiment, it seems this will result in change in mindset and age-old traditions and lead to good hygiene as well as a significant reduction in basic health problems.
Rakesh Bharti Mittal is co-chairman, Bharti Foundation and vice chairman, Bharti Enterprises.
The views expressed by author are personal.