Five years of Swachh Bharat: India still needs a policy that promotes toilet use
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2 said rural India has declared itself defecation-free. In the past four years, India has built 100 million toilets in about 0.6 million villages, and another 6.3 million in its cities. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is now in its second phase, and there will be a new set of challenges that it needs to tackle for its long-term sustainability.
In an interview to Hindustan Times, Aashish Gupta, the lead author of two important papers — Changes in open defecation in rural North India: 2014-2018, and Construction, Coercion, and ‘ODF Paper Pe’: The Swachh Bharat Mission according to local government officials — speaks on the post-ODF challenges that the flagship government programme may face.
Gupta has been tracking the programme since its inception, and has worked in the Department of Economics, University of Allahabad, and at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics.
His research interests are in social inequality, environment, health, demography and social policy.
KD: What are the gains of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)?
AG: The SBM is a remarkably high profile and visible campaign against open defecation. It had adequate political, administrative, as well as financial commitment. It built a large number of toilets. To the extent that these toilets reached those who needed them and will use them, the SBM contributed to reductions in open defecation in rural India.
KD: Now that India has been declared ODF, does it mean that every household has a toilet now?
AG: The claim is certainly that every household owns a toilet. There is an additional claim that almost everyone is using a toilet, and nobody is defecating in the open. But the truth is that India is far from being ODF. We conducted a survey in four north Indian states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) between September-December 2018. Only about 71% of people in these states owned a toilet. An even smaller proportion, 56%, used one. Our survey found that open defecation is far from over. This implies that the rural children are still exposed to faecal germs, impairing their health.
KD: Is SBM different from earlier sanitation programmes, such as, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, Total Sanitation Campaign?
AG: Even though the SBM allocated larger sums of money for each individual toilet and constructed more toilets each year, it is similar to earlier sanitation programmes in that it was largely focused on construction. The SBM did little to convince people to use toilets. It is, however, different from earlier sanitation programmes in that it used coercive methods and threats to get people to construct toilets. There was a lot of pressure from above to construct toilets and declare villages, districts, states, and the country open defecation free.
KD: What impact could such State coercion have on the long-term health of the programme?
AG: The coercion, threats, intimidation and violence that accompanied the implementation of the SBM is both ethically and strategically wrong. The large number of people who were coerced to build toilets isn’t likely to use them. In order to end open defecation, the SBM should have challenged caste and notions of purity. Instead it has reinforced social inequality and encouraged violence against marginalised sections of our society.
KD: In Nagaland, I saw toilets in villages that did not have safe waste disposal mechanism. A pipe is connected to a toilet and waste is deposited in pits, which were barely covered. Would these be considered functional toilets under SBM?
AG: The SBM constructs twin pit toilets. These are used around the world and prevent exposure to faecal germs. However, it is important that the pits be constructed and covered properly. Otherwise the toilets do not prevent exposure to germs.
KD: What are the challenges that SBM faces now?
AG: Going forward, it is important to convince people to use toilets. There are a substantial number of households in rural India that still do not own toilets. And even among the households that own toilets, many do not use toilets. Encouraging toilet use will involve challenging notions of purity and pollution, which prevent people from using simple toilets. That is the biggest challenge the SBM faces.
KD: What challenges might post-SBM sanitation programmes face?
AG: India will not be open defecation free on October 2. Post-SBM programmes will have to grapple with this reality. India still needs a sanitation policy that promotes latrine use. Unfortunately, we have seen that once a state has been declared open defecation free, sanitation programmes stop. One worries that this will happen with the country too. Additionally, post-SBM programmes will have to teach people what to do when the pits of the toilets that are actually used fill up.
KD: A much smaller country, Bangladesh, has done much better when it comes to sanitation. What did they do right?
AG: Bangladesh is more densely populated than India and poorer as well. They have ended open defecation partly because they did not have to deal with notions of purity and pollution that prevent rural Indians from adopting and using toilets. The challenge that India faces is unique that way.