When Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes up the broom on Gandhi Jayanti, he will drive forward the “Swachh Bharat” campaign and go for a goal that has eluded successive governments.
Modi making cleaning India one of his priorities has accordingly catapulted the big problem areas of lack of toilets and open defecation to the forefront of policy making in India.
Additionally, it has also underlined the failure of country’s sanitation programmes.
Nearly three decades after the first efforts were made in this direction, when the government launched central rural sanitation programme in 1986, and 15 years after a more focused campaign to build toilets was made in the form of Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999, the results have been abysmal.
According to Census 2011, 67% of the rural households and 13% of the urban households defecate in the open. A global comparison is not too flattering either. India accounts for 60% of those who practice open defecation.
So, what ails our sanitation programmes?
According to a survey by non-governmental organisation Research Institute of Compassionate Economics, 40% of households that have a working latrine have at least one person who regularly defecates in the open.
Again less than half of people who have a government latrine use it regularly and half of people who defecate in the open say that they do so because it is pleasurable, comfortable and convenient.
The report suggests the problem is with people’s sanitation preferences and it is these preferences that need to be moulded along with the task of building toilets.
“The survey sheds light on why years of government policy focused on latrine construction have done so little to reduce open defecation. Simply building toilets and latrines does not change people’s minds about using them.
“New policies must focus on creating demand for toilet and latrine use rather than building toilets that few people, other than the contractors who are paid to build them, actually want,” the report published in June said.
The problems with the flagship TSC, which doles out Rs 10,500 per household for building toilets, was flagged by the World Bank in 2010 when it questioned the sustainability of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP), a cash incentive (Rs 50,000 to 50 lakh) under the campaign to encourage villages go 'open defecation free' (ODF).
“Studies on NGP sustainability showed that only 73% have access to toilets in NGP villages, while usage of household toilets is low at 67%,” said the report.
The report underlined that while villages do achieve the ODF status, lured by the cash incentive, they fail to sustain it because the toilets states subsidise lie unused with people going back to defecating in the open.
Modi’s emphasis on toilets has jolted the government into taking some corrective steps. It has not only stepped up the efforts at building toilets it has also asked the states to go for behavioural changes in rural population through coordinated effort of different departments and ministries.
"One of the biggest challenges in making the country ODF is triggering behavioural change in the population to accept the need for building and using toilets. A large number of people amongst the Indian population are still unconvinced of the need to build toilets in their home,” the rural development ministry wrote to all the states in August.
"In this connection coordinated effort by all the departments of the state governments that have interface with the rural population is required," the ministry’s letter stated.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, is hopeful of the government’s move yielding results.
The man who has been involved in the field of sanitation for years said Indians were clean as individuals but had "nasty habits" as a community.
"People spit betel juice, throw waste on roads, women at times throw household waste near their homes, shopkeepers dump garbage on roads after closing their establishments," Pathak told IANS.