World Toilet Day: Why future of Swachh Bharat Mission remains unsure

The success of Swachh Bharat Mission depends not on toilet construction but whether India can sustain efforts to remain open defecation free after completing the targets 

By N C Saxena
Published: Monday 19 November 2018
We certainly need to celebrate the successes of Swachh Bharat but not without addressing the constraints to ensure course correction. Credit: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

More than 94 per cent rural households in India have been provided toilets as of September 27 2018, according to the government portal of Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-G). The Centre is confident that the entire country will be declared open defecation free (ODF) much before the deadline of October 2, 2019. Apart from the fact that 24 states are already ODF, even in conventionally backward states like UP and Madhya Pradesh, more than 99 per cent households own functional toilets. In fact, 93 per cent people owning toilets actually use them regularly, according to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS), conducted between mid-November 2017 and March 2018.

But how credible are these claims? In the past, there has always been a large gap between the reported and the evaluated data in rural sanitation, both in terms of the number of existing toilets and usage. Although the gap reduced considerably in the last four years, thanks to an aggressive campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to promote usage, there are other serious problems, like disposal of faecal matter, quality and maintenance of toilets, and inappropriate technology, that throw a serious doubt about the sustainability of efforts made so far. The moot question is can we continue to remain ODF in future?

Usage: government subsidies and awareness

Till late 1970s, little public investment was made to improve rural sanitation in India. The cost in terms of human suffering, disease and poverty has been immense: 18 crore man-days per year are lost due to sanitation-related diseases, the equivalent of Rs 4,000 crore per year.

To encourage the construction of household toilets, the government offered a subsidy of Rs 2,000 in the 1980s, nearly 80 per cent of the total cost of construction, under the Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP). Despite the high level of subsidy, a study by a non-profit in Gujarat, Multiple Action research Group in 1998 pointed out that only 3 per cent of the government subsidised latrines were used for defecation as many converted the latrines into storerooms or kitchens. Construction quality was also poor, resulting in many latrines remaining incomplete or damaged. Majority of the villagers were unaware of concept of sanitation and its importance. The Mid-term Review of the Ninth Plan admitted that in Uttar Pradesh, only 16 per cent surveyed households were covered by the sanitary toilets, of which nearly half never used the facility. A 1998 evaluation by the Department for International Development. under the United Kingdom government, did not find any evidence that the high level of subsidy helped promote usage of latrines amongst the poor.

In 1999, I radically restructured the CRSP as Secretary of the Ministry by shifting from high subsidy of Rs 2,000 to a low-subsidy regime of Rs 500 per toilet, that too only for BPL families. The new programme called Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) focussed more on awareness generation through involvement of NGOs and local groups. Unfortunately, states did not appreciate this and the number of toilets reported as constructed declined from 0.14-0.16 million to just 0.4 million a year. Under pressure from the state governments, the Centre kept including the non-BPL too for entitlement and also increased the subsidy from Rs 500 then to Rs 12,000 now. More than 10 crore toilets were officially constructed during 2004-11, covering nearly 73 per cent of rural households, leaving behind only 27 per cent to be covered after 2011.

Such optimistic claims of state governments were, however, not supported by independent studies. The 65th report of the National Sample Survey Office (November 2010) indicated that 65 per cent rural households had no latrine facility. Even in Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) panchayats, which were rewarded by the President of India for becoming completely ODF, only 63 per cent households had a functional toilet. In 45 per cent cases of NGP villages of UP, toilets were found to be non-existent or left incomplete, even though the district authorities certified that the toilets existed and were used too. According to Sector Reforms, a report by UNICEF on Odisha, less than half of those who availed subsidy were actually using the toilets, either fully or partially. Thus, the tendency to over-report construction on the part of field officials continued, as the district administration was not held responsible for use. Information is collected on construction, but not on usage.

The sad story of fudging of data by the field staff got further publicity when Census 2011 showed that about 0.03 billion household toilets built in the last ten years were missing. In some states (MP, UP and Tamil Nadu), the number was more than 60 per cent.

Toilet usage still ambiguous

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), the focus remains on high subsidy and construction, but equal attention was given to usage. Annual construction of rural toilets that used to be around 0.4 million to 0.6 million at the turn of the century went up to 0.02 billion in 2016-17 and more than 0.03 billion in 2017-18! Thanks to more than 0.08 billion toilets constructed in the last four years, rural sanitation coverage has gone up from 39 per cent in October 2014 to over 94 per cent in September 2018.

But the scenario regarding usage is mixed, even if better than the past. A 2017 Quality Council of India survey (QCI) in 4,624 villages showed 91 per cent usage amongst those households who had access to a toilet. The 2017–18 NARSS survey found that 93 per cent used them regularly but a 2018 Comptroller and Auditor General report observed that 29 per cent households in tribal district of Dang, Gujarat still did not have any access to toilets (either individual or public), though all the districts in the state were declared as ODF by the 2nd October, 2017. In 41 out of 120 villages, household water connections were not available and therefore toilets constructed under SBM could not be used. In Kaprada taluka of Valsad district, only 223 of 17,646 toilets constructed with financial assistance under the old programmes were now being reconstructed under SBM, while the remaining 17,423 toilets were defunct. Admitting this, the Assistant Commissioner, SBM (G), Gandhinagar said that the process of construction of the remaining defunct toilets was under progress. The CAG was not satisfied with this reply. In Uttarakhand, another ODF state, more than 70 per cent of the toilets were built without any expert’s guidance and in several areas, they were unusable owing to either lack of water connection or that they were not built within household premises, says the CAG report. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) done in 2016-17 too found that open defecation remained fairly high in the rural areas of the BIMAROU states.

In Jampada village of Jharsuguda, Odisha, a state declared ODF, all 40 households had a toilet but they were not used as the village lacked adequate water supply. Some other villages in Jharsuguda and Deogarh in Odisha, both ODF districts, tell a similar story.

Are these isolated stray examples and can be ignored as exceptions? Are we sure that there is widespread use of toilets in rural India? Perhaps yes.

Even if the current usage of toilets has considerably improved, the picture may not remain so rosy after a couple of years. This is because often only one pit is constructed, and the adoption of the twin pit model is still very low in rural India. Technically there should be two small pits of only 50 cubic feet capacity, but unfortunately neither the size nor the number of pits is being monitored. Twin pits is the safest technology for rural India, it works on a simple mechanism. The first pit fills up in around five years, and then the human faecal matter is easily directed to the second pit. Excreta in the first pit becomes compost in approximately six months to one year. This compost is safe to handle even with bare hands and is suited for agriculture. The only issue is the stigma associated with emptying the pit.

Affluent families prefer septic tanks that drive up the cost of constructing a latrine. However, disposal of excreta from septic tanks is not hygienic and that worsens the quality of water and increases health problems. By avoiding pit latrines, rural Indians avoid the need to empty a latrine pit. Even though emptying a pit latrine is a common occurrence in other developing countries, it is problematic because Hindus believe that only people from untouchable castes can empty a latrine pit.

Moreover, cleaning of both the septic tank and the single pit would involve manual scavenging in rural areas, which is both illegal and against human dignity. Besides, the faecal matter from single pits or septic tanks would be dumped in some remote corner of the village, as rural areas do not have sewage disposal drains, negating any health benefit. States should pay greater attention to these technical issues and to the hygienic disposal of faecal matter.

Construction issues 

The second issue which is not being monitored is the quality of construction. Toilet construction is rarely being done by the householder and mostly by a village contractor who pays the labour and masons, and gets the subsidy. This leads to corruption and poor quality of construction. Such toilets may not remain in use after a few years. Greater emphasis should be given to the house owner undertaking management, to ensure quality and usage.

No amount of infrastructural development under SBM (G) will sustain ODF until and unless the issue of durability and quality of construction of toilets is taken due care of, shows the 51st report by the Standing Committee of Parliament. It was also wary of the poor nature of construction and low quality of raw materials used under SBM (G).

The 2017-18 report observed that fall back rate of ODF declared villages in the past was high due to non-sustainability of toilets. In the absence of Faecal Sludge Management services, there are only two possible outcomes of the exponential growth in toilets. The toilets will fill up in a few years and be rendered defunct, or manual scavenging would be resorted to. This will not only perpetuate an exploitative social system, but will also give rise to a public health emergency.

We certainly need to celebrate the successes of Swachh Bharat but not without addressing the constraints to ensure course correction.

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