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How faith leaders can help India meet its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan goals

The NDA’s key Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is in full swing but the even after three years, the main problem seems to be in motivating people to use them the toilets built under the programme. Faith has a tremendous role in dealing with social taboos and changing norms

opinion Updated: Sep 19, 2017 09:18 IST
An Indian man urinates on a wall on the roadside in front of a poster for the Hindi film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, August 11, 2017
An Indian man urinates on a wall on the roadside in front of a poster for the Hindi film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, August 11, 2017(AFP)

The NDA’s key Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is in full swing but even after three years, the main problem seems to be in motivating people to use the toilets built under the programme.

Faith-based organisations (FBO) that work with local communities can play a key role in convincing people to use toilets. FBOs such as Islamic Relief, Art of Living, Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) and EcoSikh that are already playing a critical role in sanitation projects . With their influencing power, outreach capabilities, and scalable presence in marginalised communities, their involvement has influenced behaviour change. These organisations have also helped in executing the project at the ground level, along with technical support.

At the India Sanitation Coalition’s Annual Conclave in April, Swami Saraswati (GIWA) said, “We need to come out of our houses of worship. Before you go to meditation, you need sanitation. If you don’t go to the toilet, you can’t focus on meditation.” Akmal Shareef from the Islamic Relief emphasised how the five pillars of Islam guided devotees towards cleanliness, toilet use and hand washing.

During the 2016 Simhastha Kumbh Mela in Madhya Pradesh WASH Water, Sanitation and Hygiene was taken up as a significant social cause. Huge hoardings exhorted people to desist from defecating in the open. The mass awareness campaign displayed prototypes of toilet technologies, information kiosks and exhibitions, as well as puppet shows on sanitation issues. This effort broke misconceptions that toilets were only for women and children.

During religious gatherings at Haridwar and elsewhere, GIWA is active in promoting the use of toilets. It also approaches the whole question of caste in a definitive manner, and in recent events have had sanitation worker community eating together with saints and gurus – to break the taboos around untouchability that they face. Art of Living has conducted more than 48,000 hygiene camps and 23,000 medical camps.

In West Bengal, Ramakrishna Mission Lok Shiksha Parishad supported Rural Sanitary Marts. Due to these efforts, the coverage of households by sanitary toilets in the district increased from 4.74% in 1991 to 45% by 2001.

Though many documented cases exist of the work that FBOs are doing in building assets within communities, empirical analysis is limited with the bulk of the literature being descriptive rather than qualitative.

Behaviours do not exist in a vacuum; they are a result of our beliefs and experiences. Faith has a tremendous role in dealing with social taboos and changing norms. One of the best ways to address issues of sanitation is to bring faith leaders and faith communities to work together against a common enemy: Lack of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene).

Naina Lal Kidwai is Chair, India Sanitation Coalition, and past president, FICCI

The views expressed are personal