How the world’s largest toilet programme is changing India

Swachh Bharat Mission has helped to bring entire communities together to work on building toilets and a mindboggling 92.6 million of them have been built from the time it started in October 2014

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For many Indians, it is a matter of shame that the pervasive international image of India has been one of filthy streets, polluted rivers, and open defecation due to lack of toilets or people’s lack of will to use them. This is in stark contrast to how India was described in ancient times by foreign travellers and seekers of knowledge who travelled to join the best universities in India.

The sanitation problem became a hydra-headed monster as the population exploded in the years after Independence and successive governments did little to get a grip on it. As the editor of a magazine on water, I participated in many conferences and at most of them, the “lack of political will” was a catchphrase for India’s woes. I always wondered why no Prime Minister could make it the most important priority to clean India.

It seemed like an answer to my prayers when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared it his personal mission to end open defecation before 2 October 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He launched the world’s largest fully-funded sanitation programme ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ in 2014, which aims to transform India through community and people-centred strategies.

PM urging citizens to use toilets

Using social media, radio, and public rallies at various venues Modi made an emotional appeal to people to keep their surroundings clean and to use toilets instead of defecating in the open. Such was the powerful motivation offered by the Prime Minister that countless people all over India heeded his call. He tagged celebrities on social media seeking their support in spreading the message of hygiene and sanitation. He tweeted about common folks who went the extra mile to keep India clean, turning them into instant heroes. Recently, Modi ceremoniously washed the feet of five sanitation workers who cleaned toilets at the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest spiritual gathering. This honouring of the contribution of people who are regarded as doing the dirtiest job and who have the lowest status in society was deeply appreciated by many.

In ancient India, rural people, unlike their urban counterparts walked a long distance from their houses to relieve themselves primarily because they knew the dangers of contamination of food and water by faecal matter. Defecation in the open was usually followed by covering up of the faeces with soil so that no insects would spread infection. The left hand was used for anal washing with some water carried to the spot in a small container and this hand was cleansed thoroughly either with plant-based soaps or with sand. In those days, it was possible for rural people to find isolated places far away from habitation as well as from water bodies where, after defecation, the wastes would be safely absorbed into the soil without polluting water or land. Additionally, no manual scavenging was needed.

With burgeoning populations, it became harder to find sequestered places, far away from habitations as a result of which the practice of defecating outdoors began to increase the risk of disease. Open defecation cannot be sustained beyond a certain density of population. Even just five decades ago, population densities were not too high and open defecation was probably not increasing the risk of disease to the extent it is doing today.

Swachh Bharat Mission has helped to bring entire communities together to work on building toilets and a mindboggling 92.6 million of them have been built from the time it started in October 2014. Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted in the world before. About INR 700 billion has been jointly spent by the central and state governments in the 60:40 ratio. Companies are also being encouraged to use their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funds for these projects.

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The government provides assistance of Rs 12,000 for construction of a latrine in households that fall below the poverty (BPL) line. Identified households above the poverty line (APL) are also getting this benefit in the categories such as SC/STs, small and marginal farmers, landless labourers with a homestead, physically handicapped persons and also to those households that have a woman as the head of the family.

Building toilets was not enough

Early in the programme, it was realised that merely building toilets was not a guarantee that they would be used. Rural people believed that defecating outdoors was a healthier practice than using cloistered toilets which are easily filled with odour. It has taken many workshops and interactions to get villagers to spend their money to correctly install and use twin-pit latrines which turn faeces into harmless compost. The failure or slow progress of earlier programmes was often due to insufficient attention being given to changing behaviours.

The mission has also become the world’s largest behaviour-change programme employing a variety of teaching methods from classroom training to creative art, games and street theatre.

Interestingly, the sanitation value-chain also helps in creating jobs. Globally, toilet building has helped to increase economic opportunities, which was highlighted by Hartwig Schafer, Vice president of the World Bank’s South-East Asia region at a 2018 conference in New Delhi. “Our global experience has shown that an emerging sanitation ecosystem emerges from improved sanitation, which represents opportunities to develop the local economy,” he said. “It goes from plumbers, masons, sanitation engineers, all the way to skilled people to manage modern equipment to clean septic tanks, and proper treatment facilities,” he added citing the examples of Senegal and Sri Lanka.

With 93% of Indian villages already having achieved Open Defecation Free or ODF status, everything is on track for rural India to meet its target even before October this year. There will surely be some amount of fudging of data and slippages in the numbers of those using toilets, however, there is no doubt that India is taking basic action on the ground and that too on an unimaginable scale in order to come out of its rural sanitation crisis. Of course, this is just the beginning. In the coming years, as millions of people get access to piped water, there will be more wastewater generated. I hope Narendra Modi gets a second term as PM and pushes for innovative and ecologically mindful approaches to sanitation.

At a recent water conference I attended in Tokyo, I mischievously mentioned a lack of political will in tackling India’s sanitation problem. Bang came the reply from a delegate: “Are you talking about the past?”