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Demand for clean toilets has to come from users

Open defecation still remains a norm in rural India where, according to Census 2001, just 22 per cent households have access to basic sanitation facilities, reports Saikat Neogi.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 00:47 IST

After a visit to the banks of Ganga in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: "It filled me with agony to see people performing natural functions on the thoroughfares and river banks." Nearly a century later little has changed. Open defecation still remains a norm in rural India where, according to Census 2001, just 22 per cent households have access to basic sanitation facilities.

As early as in 1986, the government launched an ambitious Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP), which provided 100 per cent subsidy to every household to construct pucca, twin-pit latrines. The programme was a huge failure despite good intentions. There was simply no demand for latrines in rural India and the government scheme did not address the mindset. An enclosed bathroom was nowhere on the illiterate villagers’ wish list.

“There was lack of people’s participation and even if toilets were created they were not put to use,” says C Ajith Kumar, operation analyst at the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program. Toilets constructed with subsidy did not ensure usage or behavioural change and a government study found that only 5 per cent of the subsidised toilets were used as people still preferred to defecate in the open.

It took 13 years for the government to realise that the subsidy-led initiative was not working out. The CRSP was scrapped in 1999 and was replaced by a new, and demand driven, Total Sanitary Campaign. The policy stressed on information, education and communication about the need for sanitation facilities. Though the drive added 2.8 million household toilets annually, it is far from adequate. According to a World Bank report, it will take until 2024 to achieve full household toilet coverage in rural India.

The biggest challenge in villages lies not in increasing the coverage of sanitation facilities, but in convincing people to use them. “Significant investments in social mobilisation and awareness creation are required to achieve sustained behavioural change to make an open defecation free environment and reduce faecal oriented disease transmission," says Soma Ghosh Moulik, water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program.

The UNDP Human Development Report 2006 testifies that the best models of a quantum change depend on partnerships between governments and communities with civil society organisations working as a bridge. “Local communities can identify low-cost appropriate technology to improve sanitation coverage,” the report underlines. Government funding is important but it has to come through incentive schemes and targeted subsidies for those below the poverty line.

The first state to include community participation in public policy was West Bengal. Since 1990 the state government has developed a strategy to expand rural sanitation by creating a dedicated village institution to monitor coverage and training to villagers through NGOs. The campaign emphasises hygiene education and community involvement to generate demand and the state government supports networks of rural sanitary marts to manufacture low-cost latrine slabs.

The result: across the state two million toilets have been constructed in the last five years, increasing state coverage of rural sanitation from 12 per cent in 1991 to more than 40 per cent today. Government subsidies cover about 40 per cent of the cost of a latrine, but most public spending has gone into social marketing campaigns and programmes for latrine construction. “West Bengal’s achievement over the past five years is build on more than a decade of political and institutional investment,” the UNDP report commends.

In 2004, the Centre launched Nirmal Gram Puruskar or clean village award, which gives cash incentive to villages that achieve 100 per cent sanitation. In 2005 there were 38 recipients and this year the number has risen 20 times. And by spending Rs 1.3 crore in 2005 and Rs 20 crore in 2006, the programme has facilitated in liberating 2.75 million rural people from open defecation.

The scheme is not only transforming lives but it is also creating peer pressure on neighbouring villages to go for total sanitation. India’s challenge right now is to galvanise the rural communities and institutions like panchayats in creating demand for more toilets everywhere in the country. The next story shows how participatory process, sustained follow-up and motivation is meeting success in some parts of the country.

First Published: Dec 11, 2006 00:47 IST