By Urvashi Prasad:
Nearly 100 million people in India lack access to safe drinking water and over 700 million continue to defecate in the open. Over 600,000 children under 5 years lose their lives to water and sanitation related diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia every year. In this context, the recent launch of the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Campaign) by the Prime Minister can be seen as a welcome and much needed step. However, if the campaign is to go beyond symbolism and actually achieve the goal of making India open defecation free by 2019, it needs a multi-pronged strategy that encompasses the following key elements:
1) Sustained involvement of multiple stakeholders:Â While it was heartening to see celebrities and Government officials sweeping the streets on 2nd October, it is important to ensure that the interest of all stakeholders (politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs, private enterprises, funders and communities) is sustained and they work towards this goal in a concerted fashion.
While the Government has brought on board, major organisations like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, they need to ensure that all stakeholder voices are heard and various efforts are coordinated in order to avoid duplication or gaps in implementation. For instance, there is a UNICEF led coalition on Water, Sanitation & Hygiene in Schools which has produced a roadmap for ensuring access to basic services in schools in India. The document was released by the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Government of India in August 2014, but the initiatives highlighted in that need to be integrated with this campaign so that it does not remain just another publication.
2) Focus on changing behaviours:Â This is perhaps the biggest roadblock to achieving the desired goal of clean India. Several families are habituated to defecating in the open and this is perhaps why large numbers of toilets that have been constructed are lying unused or in a dysfunctional state. In fact, I have spoken to many people who find toilets claustrophobic and have a clear preference for going out into fields. Even though it has hardly been a week since the launch of the campaign, we saw photographs of people leaving litter behind after the Prime Minister’s rally in Mumbai.
Changing behaviours is therefore going to be far from straightforward and this is where the engagement of community-based organisations and community leaders will be critical. While involvement of celebrities can help (Mr Amitabh Bachchan has successfully been the Goodwill Ambassador for polio eradication), it will be imperative to understand local cultures, motivations and belief systems. Not everyone wants a toilet for better health. Some want it for convenience or because it is safer for women. Until there is a strong understanding of these aspects, it will be impossible to change behaviours.
More importantly, hygiene education needs to be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum, as opposed to leaving it to the discretion of State Education Boards to decide whether or not they want to include it. Once good hygiene habits have been inculcated into children, they can champion the cause of sanitation in their communities. Children are known to be important change agents and can make a significant contribution to the success of this campaign by spreading the message of cleanliness to their families and communities.
3) Going beyond toilet construction:Â Previous governments have also allocated a lot of money to sanitation through initiatives like Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. It is extremely important that the Government realises that merely constructing more toilets is not going to be worthwhile. The toilets need to be usable and for that quality of construction as well as operation and maintenance needs to be robust. The latter needs ownership from people but also innovative models like involving private sector enterprises to maintain community/public toilets on a fee basis. Water availability in toilets also needs to be ensured. Moreover, solutions for collecting and recycling waste are also essential. Thus, a comprehensive package of interventions is the need of the hour, as opposed to focusing primarily on toilet construction.
4) Going beyond fund allocation:Â The Swachh Bharat Kosh which has been set up to attract funds for the campaign from corporates and individuals is another potentially good idea. However, the fund needs to be managed and monitored to ensure that the money is spent appropriately. Among the several government officials I have interacted with during the course of my work, no one has ever said that the biggest hurdle is shortage of funds. The challenge has always been spending money in the right manner and that needs systems to be put in place. It also needs roles and responsibilities to be defined in a manner such that there is clear accountability for how the money is spent and what it is spent on.
The targets set out by Government schemes also need to be broadened to assess toilet functionality and usage as opposed to merely the physical presence of infrastructure.
Ultimately, I believe that the success or failure of this campaign depends on each one of us. We can choose to be sceptical and not participate or we can ensure that we begin the change with ourselves and our surroundings. The Government also needs to have a clear plan for achieving the 2019 target, taking into account some of the issues highlighted above, so that the campaign does not get reduced to a one-off popularity stunt.