Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, who has been stripped of the department of drinking water and sanitation in Sunday’s reshuffle, has expressed the hope that his successor, Bharatsin Solanki, will take forward the initiatives he had rolled out. One hopes he would be wiser. Ramesh was piqued that India had more temples than toilets. He wants defecators to be arrested. While his zeal to provide every hapless woman a toilet was laudable, his approach is questionable. Villagers or urban slum dwellers who are forced to defecate in the open are victims of an exploitative system — not its perpetrators.
This mindset has already resulted in some regressive administrative initiatives. In Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the government has launched a campaign to ‘shame’ households without toilets. The idea is to create a stigma against the act, so that people, particularly those in the rural areas use toilets. To treat those who are forced to defecate in the open as criminals amounts to punishing those who are already at the receiving end of an exploitative social system. It is also counterproductive because instead of solving the problem, it aggravates the situation.
There is no disputing the fact that sanitation is the key to public health and lack of it imposes a heavy economic burden on the growth of a society. According to the World Health Organization, open areas are the only toilet option for an estimated 625 million Indians. A recent government census showed nearly half of India’s households do not have a toilet. The problem is no doubt challenging, but it needs a multi-pronged strategy to tackle infrastructural inadequacies, social and cultural attitudes of the people and economic factors.
The Central Rural Sanitation Programme, launched in 1986, was later rechristened as the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). Thousands of crores have been spent subsidising individual and community toilets, but even with such large amounts of subsidies, it has not been easy to convince people to construct toilets and stop open defecation. Wherever toilets have been constructed, there is no guarantee that they are being used. The state of subsidised public toilets is worse. Very few are maintained as they have been constructed by the government and there is no community ownership. The focus is on building more and more toilets instead of measuring the extent of open defecation, which in most cases continues unabated. The concern is more about budgetary allocation and financial progress of the scheme rather than on the final impact of the programme.
The 2011 Census data reveals that 49.8 per cent of Indian households defecate in open. Only 50.1 per cent of India’s 24.66 crore households have access to a toilet, either their own or a public toilet. Government subsidy to individuals for building a toilet has gone up from `2,200 to `9,900 and the plan outlay increased to a whopping 36,000 crore from 7,800 crore in the 11th Five Year plan, under the restructured Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) now known as the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.
Toilet construction has little meaning if open defecation continues alongside. The practice of open defecation has heavily contaminated our drinking water sources and the environment as a whole. Diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and other enteric diseases are a regular phenomenon, and also contribute to an increase in infant mortality rates. Subsidising construction of toilets is not leading to curtailment of open defecation and, consequently, the intended benefits of the sanitation programme are not accruing to people.
It is high time we analyse whether the subsidy approach has built in elements that prevents total sanitation. The landless are excluded as they have no land to construct a toilet, poorer people may not afford the expensive model prescribed by the scheme, and the better-off wait to see if they can get subsidies instead of constructing toilets on their own. This subsidy-oriented toilet construction may be a self-defeating proposition as is evident from an independent study of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) awarded villages, which has shown that many of these villages have slipped back to open defecation.
The study, conducted by WaterAid India says: ‘There is evidence to suggest that despite open-defecation-free and fully sanitised status being one of the qualifying conditions for eligibility to NGP, actual TSC implementation and monitoring is largely limited to constructing individual household latrines, which is only one of the components of the campaign. There is at present little or no attempt at either the state or district level to verify and certify the open-defecation-free and fully sanitised status of villages applying for NGP.’
The study also raises serious questions about the role of subsidies in achievement the targets of the TSC. For instance, the researchers found that Bihar and Chhattisgarh, two of the five states that provided higher subsidy to even households living above the poverty line performed poorly in comparison to others. Against the national average of 55.6 per cent the coverage of individual household latrines (IHHLs) in these states was only 10.1 per cent and 27.9 per cent respectively. In contrast, Haryana, a state where there was no talk of subsidy at the community level, the current coverage is 78.7 per cent.
Instead of a target-driven approach to the total sanitation scheme, the government should switch to an innovative approach of community-led sanitation. This approach to sanitation called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) involves empowering the community to analyse its own sanitation profile and taking an informed decision to stop open defecation without any external hardware subsidy. It empowers the communities to analyse their own sanitation profile and take an informed decision to stop open defecation without any external hardware subsidy.
This has been tried in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, West Bengal and in over 30 countries with tremendous results. The focus in this approach is collective behaviour change in the community. Many tools and techniques have been developed to enable communities to undertake participatory analysis and to decide on their own to stop open defecation without any external pressure or allurement of subsidy.
The subsidy approach neglects the linked issue of ending manual scavenging that is an integral mandate of the TSC. One of the main focus of the campaign should also be to provide alternative livelihood to the disempowered community that are forced into manual scavenging. This will automatically spur the privileged sections of the rural and urban society who engage them to adopt TSC norms. It is time we decide what is important — subsidy for populist gains or self-respect of the community. The choice is between a software-led approach where the inherent potential and social capital of the community is harnessed and a hardware-led target oriented approach.
Upendra Nath Sharma is a sociologist.