3 Years of Swachh Bharat: Is Just Constructing Toilets Enough?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated Swachh Bharat on 2 October 2014, with the aim to make India free of open defecation by 2 October 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated Swachh Bharat on 2 October 2014, with the aim to make India free of open defecation by 2 October 2019.(Photo: Reuters)

3 Years of Swachh Bharat: Is Just Constructing Toilets Enough?

As many as 49.62 million more households in India have toilets – risen from 38.7 percent in 2014 to 69.04 percent in 2017 – and 250,000 of India’s 649,481 villages have been declared open defecation-free. But the status of 150,000 (63 percent) of these villages have not been verified and there is no way of knowing if the rest are using the new toilets.

These are the conclusions of an IndiaSpend analysis – of government data – of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 2 October 2014, with the aim to make India free of open defecation by 2 October 2019.

The World Bank has termed the scheme’s implementation ‘moderately unsatisfactory’. However, a August 2017 survey conducted by an autonomous government body – Swachh Sarvekshan 2017 – found that nine in 10 (91.29 percent) rural households having access to a toilet are using it.

'Toilets for the Dignity of Our Mothers and Sisters'

It was on 15 August 2014, during his Independence Day speech, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), with these words: “Brother and Sisters, we are living in 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open? Isn’t dignity of women our collective responsibility? The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night and unless darkness descends, they can’t go out to defecate. What bodily torture they must be feeling, how many diseases that act might engender. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?”

The mission is divided into two components: Gramin (rural) and urban.

Swacch Bharat Mission (Gramin)

  • 38.7 percent of rural households had individual household latrines on 2 October 2014, the day SBM was launched;
  • 249,811 villages were open-defecation free (ODF) in 2017, of which 63 percent (157,935) were verified officially;
  • 207 districts are ODF, of which 62 percent (127) were verified officially.

Villages are considered ‘open defecation-free’ when “no faeces are visible and every household and public/community institution uses safe technology to dispose of faeces in such a way that there is no contamination of surface soil, groundwater or surface water; excreta is inaccessible to flies or animals, with no manual handling of fresh excreta; and there are no odour and unsightly conditions”, as the ministry of drinking water & sanitation ( MoDWS) website explains.

As of 2016, 36.7 percent of rural households used “improved sanitation facilities”, according to data from the National Family Health Survey 4, conducted between January 2015 and December 2016. A majority (51.6 percent) did not, IndiaSpend reported on 24 May 2017.

The current statistics on the construction of toilets, ODF villages and districts and states are indeed a positive development. I believe that even if we do not achieve the target of 100 percent toilet coverage and usage by 2 October 2019, and have 70-80 percent full coverage and usage compliance, that would be a big achievement in itself.
Avinash Kumar, Director, Policy & Programmes at WaterAid India

“Construction of toilets, however, needs to be context specific. For instance, in several villages, the faulty design of toilets leads to contamination of groundwater,” he added.

Behind the Govt's Data, Unverified Details

While the government’s data reveal substantial progress over three years, experts pointed out many of these claims were not verified.

“It is important to remember that ODF declarations are self-reported,” said Avani Kapur, fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a think tank, and director of the Accountability Initiative, a CPR programme.

If we look at the numbers as of 29 September 2017, while 252,430 villages have been declared ODF, only 1.5 lakh have been verified meaning that nearly 40 percent have not been verified as yet.
Avani Kapur, Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR)

States are allowed to define their own verification process, Kapur said, which does not help standardised verification.

Ideally, there should be regular, third party evaluations which conduct their own independent surveys to ensure actual ODF. What we have seen on the ground is that declarations often follow presence of toilets rather than actual ODF. However, once a village has been declared as ODF, most monitoring efforts come to a stop and there isn’t a concerted effort to maintain the ODF status.

The World Bank, which had promised a loan of $1.5 billion (Rs 10,500 crore) for SBM-Gramin, did not release the first instalment due in July 2016 because India did not fulfill a condition of conducting and announcing results of an independent verification survey, The Economic Times reported in January 2017.

The World Bank’s current ranking of the overall implementation progress of the project is ‘moderately unsatisfactory’.

Swacch Bharat Mission (Urban)

As of 29 September 2017, this is what data from the ministry of drinking water and sanitation shows:

  • 44,650 wards (of 82,725) have 100 percent door-to-door waste collection;
  • 12,526 community toilets built in three years;
  • 11,806 public toilets constructed.

This is “slow” progress, said Kapur of CPR. No more than 53 percent of wards have 100 percent door-to- door collection of garbage, and only 23 percent of trash is processed. “Until the solid waste management issue is resolved, even achieving 100 percent ODF declarations will do nothing for our public health crisis and could, in fact, worsen it,” said Kapur.

Six states and union territories, including Gujarat, Assam and Kerala, had not received funds for solid waste management since the programme started on 2 October 2014, according to this January 2017 brief from the Accountability Initiative, which Kapur co-authored.

The central government had also not released 46 percent of funds set aside to build toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), according to this reply to the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) on 26 July 2017, as IndiaSpend reported.

Is Constructing Toilets = Using Toilets?

The SBM rhetoric has moved from constructing toilets to using them, as it should.

At every level – state, district, block or even gram panchayat (village council) – the common phrases you will hear are “triggering”, “demand-driven” and “behaviour change”. Unfortunately, I don’t think the actions follow the language.
Avani Kapur

In 2016, the budget for “information, education and communication (IEC)” indicates that no more than 10 percent of the money set aside to change behaviour was spent. Till January 2017, no more than 12 percent of the IEC budget was spent.

The argument now seems to be ‘build toilets first, then people will use them’, which is the exact opposite of the community-led sanitation (CLTS) model and what SBM itself had envisaged in its guidelines

However, the CLTS model may not be effective in India due to the prevalence of casteism, according to American scholars Dean Spears and Diane Coffey, sanitation researchers and authors of the 2017 book, ‘Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste’.

Once the Pits Fill, Likely Dalits Will Have to Empty Them

“In CLTS, people are supposed to come together as a community against open defecation. In most places, community means local area, my town or my village but in India, it means religion or caste,” Spears and Coffey told IndiaSpend in an interview on 13 August 2017.

The whole idea of CLTS is to get the whole village to cooperate, but people in villages in India unfortunately don’t cooperate, especially ones where open defecation is common. Exactly the places where casteism is important, those are the places where open defecation is common and those are the places where there is a lot of conflict among castes.

“Imagine if SBM was successful and magically everyone is using the latrines. In a few years, they are going to fill up and who is going to empty them? It is going to set back progress in social liberalism because, one way of the other, Dalits will be the people who have to empty the latrine pits. I don’t think there is a solution to the problem and I think it is problem that we should all be thinking about”, Spears and Coffey stated.

The SBM targets appear to be in conflict with the imperative of behaviour change: Government officials have little choice but to focus on deadlines.

This means that every stakeholder, especially government officials, is under pressure to achieve targets. This leads them to use questionable tactics such as public shaming and taking away public welfare services
Kumar, WaterAid

He cited the example of Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for a fourth of open defecation in India. UP has set a goal to be ODF by December 2018. He said “A state, which has limited resources and capacity, will then use questionable tactics to achieve their targets”.

Coercion has been reported in Rajasthan, where the poorest people in a village were threatened with withdrawal of public services, and in Jharkhand, where officials confiscated lungis from violators.

From the Government, Empirical Evidence That Toilets Are Being Used

The Swachh Survekshan Gramin 2017 survey – covering 140,000 households and 700 districts – conducted by the Quality Control of India (QCI), an autonomous government body, is more optimistic than those who have watched the SBM unfold.

“In the criticism of the Swachh Bharat Mission, many have cited anecdotal evidence about toilets being used to store grains, but there is empirical evidence of a dramatic improvement in both coverage and usage of toilets,” wrote Adil Zainulbhai, Chairman, QCI, in an op-ed for Indian Express on 28 September 2017.

Three years after the launch of the mission, a behavioural change is discernible, especially in rural India
Adil Zainulbhai, Chairman QCI
More than nine in 10 (91.29 percent) rural households with access to a toilet use it, said the QCI survey. The results are similar for urban areas. Of 73 cities that participated in Swachh Survekshan 2016, 54 cities have improved their score in overall municipal solid waste management in 2017.

These findings have shortcomings, according to this 10 August 2017, analysis of the QCI survey by Down To Earth, a environment magazine.

“Though 34.6 percent villages in India have declared themselves ODF, but factors like availability of water, sensitisation, long-term affordability (based on soil type and groundwater level), cleanliness and maintenance may deter toilet usage,” revealed the analysis. It also stated that, “the Swachh Survekshan Gramin ignores employed toilet technology, solid and liquid waste management, adaptability and acceptance by villagers in its method of study. QCI surveyed 1.4 lakh rural households from 4,626 villages, a minuscule 0.72 percent of the total villages in India.”

(This Article was first published on Fact Checker.)

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