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Cart Before The Horse

Cart Before The Horse

The desired result of any venture depends on doing it in the right order without disrupting the sequence. Mahatma Gandhi who led the freedom movement through successive phases and won the battle stands an ever-relevant role model in doing things in the right order.  It didn’t take a 1,000 Gandhijis to free India from over 250 years of formidable British colonial power. Just one call from Gandhiji and India’s teeming millions, as one huge family, followed him, for they knew him as someone who loved each and every Indian as his own kith and kin.

Alas, on October 2 this year, at the commemoration of Gandhiji’s 148th birth anniversary and the third anniversary of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship 'Swachh Bharat' ('Clean India') Campaign, we heard a disenchanted Prime Minister asserting in the negative, “Even 1,000 Mahatma Gandhis could not achieve the goal of a clean India without the participation of 125 crore Indians.” Sure enough, participation counts.

Reams have been consumed in highlighting the inexhaustible perspectives of the 'Swachh Bharat' Mission (SBM). A sky-high hype has been created around it via the media, public discourse, government involvement, collaboration of celebrities and allotment of funds. Yet no comprehensive assessment of the campaign can be made as the whole project has left people disinterested in it.

Toilets construction and ending the practice of open defecation have been the objectives central to the SBM. However, SBM isn’t a simple drive that can hit the target by providing toilets to the people. Such a bid would be nothing more than an effort to fit square pegs in round hole. In a welfare state, every measure is to be oriented towards the welfare of the people rather than to boost the image of the state. The centrality of the person for whom the welfare measures are introduced is to be driven home at every stage of the project. It’s high time to give a human face to the purpose and implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission. 

No welfare measure thrust down the throat of people despite the best of intention will wash. Undoubtedly open defecation that plagues urban and rural India alike is a big roadblock to achieving the Clean India goal. However, the ‘Name and Shame’ campaign being launched by some officials and by a TV channel to name and shame those who defecate in the open is a coercive step that violates human dignity and frustrates people. So is the fining exercise that impoverishes the already poverty-stricken people.   No one has the right to organize campaigns to shame citizens. The Constitution categorically denies the state to interfere in people’s lives. Appointing whistle-blowers to shame those who do not use toilets is an act of bullying people.

If the wisdom of the ‘Name and Shame’ drive cannot be left untapped, then first use the tactics to ‘Name and Shame’ those half-baked infrastructure -- the ‘name-sake-toilets’ which lacks water facility, space, proper ventilation, electricity, proximity et al. What’s important is to cut at the root of the reason why people are not using toilets and still prefer open defecation. They either have no access to toilets or those constructed are dysfunctional on various counts. Top of it all, Indian psyche is rooted in the century-old caste system that glorifies the work of the scavenger community collecting human excreta and yet another group of people meant for cleaning places and things like septic tanks. 

The government needs to invest money and energy on smart techniques of waste management and sanitation in the country.  The number of those dying while cleaning the hazardous sewers or never coming out of the manholes they are ordered to clean is not small. These are the very citizens of India who are shamed in the campaign. What about their right to life and dignity? How’s that despite a three-year do or die SBM, the government never thought of mechanized cleaning of manholes across the cities?

The SBM needs to be stripped off from publicity stunt and construction spree. Leaving aside the photo ops flashing a few broom-wielding celebrities or political leaders sweeping a small portion of littered area, the mission ought to meander through the stinking lanes and pockets of the rural as well as urban India witnessing the mess, monitoring the measures put in place and proactively confronting the people to use toilets. Since the sanitary problems in urban and rural areas are different, it’s not fair to paint them with the same brush.

As per a case study (Annual Status of Education Report) done in 2016, while 96.5% of rural elementary government schools had toilets more than one in four toilets (27.79%) were dysfunctional or locked. This reveals that SBM attaches little importance to the upkeep, maintenance and sustainability of the infrastructure once put in place.

Most importantly the focus of the SBM should be on behavioural change. As per the guidelines 8% of the funds ought to be allocated for information, education and communication activities. But during 2016-17, up to January 2017 only 1% of the total expenditure reportedly had been made on information, education and communication. Given the astronomical height of hype created around the self-adulation ads by the one who leads the campaign, the fate of the rest of the money is everyone’s guess.

Swachh Bharat Mission needs a committed Water Policy. For, there’s a close co-relation between toilets and water requirement. Unless equal resources for development of both sanitation and water availability are provided toilets will not be used on a regular basis by the people. There has been stark discrepancy in the allocations of funds for toilet building and improvement of water resources.

For the financial year 2017-18, Swachh Bharat (Rural) received central allocation worth  Rs .  13,948 crores, a fair increase from the 10,000 crores allocated in the previous financial year. However, the allocation for rural water infrastructure improvement was merely  Rs .  6,000 crores, less than half of what has been allocated to Swachh Bharat (Rural).

The Ministry of Water Resources estimates that each rural household needs 40 litres of water every day, out of which 15 to 20 litres are required for sanitation. But as of 2017, almost 19,000 villages are yet to have access to piped water supply. Even the ones that do get piped water, getting 40 litres a day remains a distant dream. On an average, a well-supplied rural household receives 8-10 litres of water per day and as water is mostly utilised for cooking, drinking and washing, using it for sanitation becomes the last priority.

While ending open defecation requires multiplication of toilets at mega speed, it’s important to make them usable for people. Pursuit of Swachh Bharat also requires strengthening public health services. Services such as good drainage systems, absence of swamps and ponds that are home to stagnant water, and the supply of safe drinking water – all of which reduce exposure to and spread of diseases are classic examples of public goods and require effective government intervention.

Instead of playing the big brother or intimidating the non-users of toilets, the government should support non-coercive persuasive steps to bring about behavioural change in the people. Investing in communication programmes, training and deploying field facilitators who can instruct the people and monitor the use of toilets etc. can produce a rich dividend for the success of the Clean India Mission.

With the teeming millions of India’s rural folk used to century-old social customs and behavioural pattern no force will work. Gentle persuasion through non-coercive programs will go a long way to bring about behavioural change that we look for. Because old habits die hard.

If toilet construction is a sine qua non for ending the scourge of open defecation, water facility in the toilet is a raison d'etre for people to use them. As most toilets being built under Swachh Bharat Mission are water-intensive, shortage of water remains a natural deterrent for people from using them.

The Mission has already constructed 3 crore conventional toilets which are not environmental friendly and sustainable. The fact that t hree crore toilets without sufficient water facility is a harsh reality that brings to mind the old saying 'putting the cart before the horse'; in other words, things are not done in the right order. ‘First facility, then usage and at no stage coercion’ ought to be the slogan of the SBM.

(Published on 23rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 43)