What's the right strategy to fight the scourge of open defecation?

The inaugural edition of Down To Earth Hindi carried a cover story on the challenge of sanitation in India. The story analysed whether, and how, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can fulfil his desirable promise of toilets to all households by October 2019. It found that the government will have to construct one toilet every second non-stop till October 2019 to provide toilets to all the families who defecate in the open. But the 30-odd sanitation experts and senior government officials, who gathered in Delhi to discuss the cover story and to take stock of sanitation in India, say the challenge is even bigger and beyond toilet construction. According to their assessment, bringing the behavioural change that will ensure use of toilets will be the toughest task. At the same time, the group had many successful experiences of not just building toilets but also of making people use them. Down To Earth features three government officials who have successfully fought the scourge of open defecation, while asking the top Indian government official in charge of the mission to chart out the strategy to achieve this goal. It is clear that when it comes to sanitation there is no debate on its importance; the debate is on the right choice of strategy.

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 31 October 2016

"Sustaining use of toilets is the biggest challenge"

The fisrt crucial step to tackle the challenge of sanitation in rural India is already taken. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought this issue into national agenda. His personal persuasion of the sanitation agenda has already galvanised the administration on the Swachh Bharat Mission. More than 1 00,000 villages have been declared open defecation-free; many thousands will soon join the list. Now the challenge is: how to sustain this status for- ever? I know that there is slippage in sanitation status; people get back to open defecation even after having a toilet at home. Why does it happen? There are many reasons. But the biggest challenge is bringing the behavioural change that will ensure that people stop defecating in the open. And this challenge has many dimensions; each of them is a further challenge. It is going to be a long-term engagement and in future it will require the same kind of political backing as the sanitation programme is receiving now. Here is an example of how difficult the job of bringing behavioural change is. In the United States of America, government had to work for 30-40 years to ensure that people use seat belts while driving cars.

The government feels strongly that just building toilets is not going to fetch anyone the swachh (clean) tag. Rather it must be a broader attempt to make a village clean with toilets and also the crucial solid and waste management mechanism. This makes our job further challenging, though at the policy level we are seriously pursuing this. To make it a campaign, we need to work at the PM (prime minister), CM (chief minister), DM (district magistrate) and VM (village mukhiya or head) levels; each doing their bit to make people aware of the benefits of sanitation. Each of the institutional heads must give her or his support, both political and policy and programmatic. This is the reason the government is working on a village-level cleanliness index. Under this, each village will take the responsibility of becoming open defecation-free and we will empower them to self-certify their status. This will bring in ownership over the programme.
"Sanitation should be a habit, rather than a compulsion"

Sindhudurg district has been termed the cleanest in the country. In April this year, it became open defecation-free. The journey has been worth the destination. There is no one way of ensuring toilets to all and that people use them in the long term. Making the district open defecation-free was a tough call as every household has to subscribe to this objective.

I used religious faith as a tool to convince people of the importance of sanitation. We have 745 villages comprising more than 5,000 hamlets. Each hamlet has one traditional religious leader, locally called “Gaonkar”. We worked with them to reach out to the larger community. But to begin with, we had to convince the religious leaders of the health and spiritual aspects of sanitation. Once that was achieved, it was easy as these religious leaders spread the message of total sanitation among their constituencies.

At the same time, we adopted the name and shame strategy for households who did not have toilets. That helped us in forcing people to build toilets. An interesting aspect of the district is that almost every household has a member working in Mumbai, and almost all of the district population aspires to work in the city. Our point was without having a toilet at home how could they aspire to adjust to life in a city. We also shame those who are already earning well in Mumbai but never bothered to construct a toilet for their family in the village. It all happened in meetings of panchayats which everybody attends.

At the same time, we facilitated those who wanted to build a toilet but could not afford it. The district administration arranges loans of Rs 12,000 from District Cooperative Banks at minimal interest of Rs 110 per month. The people of the district have a very high civic sense and the district has been historically doing well on the cleanliness front. There is good synergy between the people and the local government that has made cleanliness a habit rather than a compulsion.
"If people don't own sanitation programme, open defecation will continue"

By November this year, Kurukshetra would be an open defecation-free district. But it could have achieved this status in 2013. This is where a lesson for total sanitation lies. In 2010, I was an additional deputy commissioner in the district. I took up a massive campaign for making the district open defecation-free. It was not just my personal agenda, but there was similar government attention to the problem. We roped in the community, particularly the women, to make the use of toilet a fundamental habit. The results were overwhelming: in three years a record 303 villages were declared open defecation-free and got the coveted Nirmal Gram Puraskar (Clean Village Award). In these three years I focused on the construction of toilet facilities and their use. For a state that is infamous for “honour”-related crimes, having a toilet became the new honour.

In 2013, I was transferred out of the district. But I used to come back for other official works. During such visits, I could see the collapse of the great stride the district had made in achieving total sanitation. Most of the villages that took pride in the open defecation-free status had gone back to defecating in the open. We were back to where we started. But the pertinent question is: why did this happen?

This is because we failed in sustaining the engagement with the community on sanitation. Our efforts were not consistent and in just a few months all past work collapsed. The community lost the sense of ownership over the programme; it was just a government programme that distributed money to build toilets. This can happen to any village in the country.

We are back to correct this failure. This time, the emphasis is on involving the community. We are also looking at solid waste management so that people don’t complain about disposal of toilet waste. The district has been divided into 25 clusters; each will be supervised by a senior official. These officials are drawn from all relevant departments so that sanitation does not remain just a toilet construction initiative. Elected members of the panchayat are being used to motivate people in their constituencies to use toilets. It is a new beginning but with lessons from the past having been learnt.
"Use both positive and negative pressures for toilet use"

Sikkim is the first Indian state to be declared open defecation-free. That way, the state is the first example of achieving total sanitation at this scale.

We achieved it because the government showed both political and administrative will. Sikkim is a small hilly state. Its elected members in Legislative Assembly and Parliament showed eagerness to make it the first state of the country to achieve the status. This was coupled with administrative will. Some officers also showed their keenness in implementing it. Finally, we became open defecation-free two years ago.

Now the challenge is to sustain this effort and change people’s behaviour. Since I joined as the district commissioner of South Sikkim two years ago, it has been a challenge to keep this momentum up. I joined when the state was about to achieve this status. We adopted a few innovative methods to keep engaging with the public on sanitation and other developmental issues. We have started “field day” and “village adoption” methods to take things further.

We hold the “field day” on every Friday where our officers visit villages to take stock of the situation, interact with village heads and organise meetings with village representatives to keep them motivated. This provides the opportunity to keep a tab on whether people are using toilets. But our conversations are mostly about the benefits of sanitation.

In the scheme “District Administration Adoption Village”, we adopt two panchayats for six months to turn them into model panchayats. The main component of this initiative is to encourage good sanitation practices. Leaders of these model panchayats assume crucial role in ensuring that all sanitation-related works get importance and people continue to use the toilets. They also interact with neighbouring village residents to encourage them to construct and use toilets.

We followed a strategy of putting two types of pressure on the people—one positive and the other negative. Positive pressure was put through campaigns and social messages across sections of society. Negative pressure was applied by restricting and denying government benefits to those who have not constructed toilets or have not given up open defecation. This has helped create an overall positive impact.

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