3 years of Swachh Bharat: States may be inflating number of toilets built

Source: Reuters
Three years after the launch of the ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G), the number of toilets constructed under the scheme appears exaggerated in the absence of an independent or credible verification report. The progress made under the SBM-G suggests that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019 is likely to remain unfulfilled as many big states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar showed little progress and many other states are not spending money on information, education and communication activities to motivate rural households to use toilets.

There is fear that the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) will meet the fate of the previous scheme, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), under which toilets were built but most remained unused. 
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) later found that the number of toilets built under the NBA was inflated by the states. 

Though the CAG is yet to come out with its report on the rechristened SBM-G, the data accessed by Business Standard point to a mismatch between the funds allocated and toilets constructed under the scheme.

Mismatch in numbers

Under the SBM-G scheme, the target of building toilets was kept at 111.1 million.  Of these, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation (MDWS) found that 88.4 million households were eligible for receiving financial assistance under the SBM. Each household was supposed to receive a financial incentive of Rs 12,000 (Rs 7,200 from the Centre and the remaining Rs 4,800 from states) upon completion of a toilet in their respective compounds.

The MDWS spread the target of providing financial assistance to 88.4 million toilets over five financial years beginning 2014-15. The ministry is now patting its back, claiming that it has overachieved the target each year. For instance, in 2014-15, 5.85 million toilets were built against the target of five million and in 2015-16 the government was successful in adding another 12.7 million toilets against the target of 12 million.

Similarly, in 2016-17 the number of toilets built was 21.9 million against the target of 15 million, registering a success rate of 146 per cent. Till September 22 this year, more than 50 per cent toilets have been built against the target of 17 million for FY18.

The data show total number of toilets (49.6 million) built thus far against the target of 49 million (over four years).  

A back-of-the-envelope calculation using the budget allocation for SBM-G and the number of toilets built suggests that the number of constructed toilets under the SBM may have been inflated. For instance, the ministry was given Rs 2,850 crore in 2014-15 for the SBM-G. This budgetary allocation includes money for toilet construction, IEC (information, education, and communication) activities and other expenses. Assuming the ministry spent the budgetary allocation only on constructing toilets at Rs 7,200 each (the Centre’s share), then it could not have added more than 3.95 million household latrines. However, the MDWS claims construction of 5.85 million toilets, which would require Rs 4,215 crore at Rs 7,200 each. The difference in the cost (Rs 1,365 crore) was not budgeted or provisioned in the next fiscal year (2015-16), when the government again overachieved its target. The MDWS was given Rs 6,524 crore in 2015-16.

Assuming that the entire budget was once again spent purely on constructing toilets, the government would have only 9.06 million toilets made from the money available with it against the target of 12 million.

However, it ended up claiming the construction of 12.7 million toilets. The construction of 12.7 million toilets means requirement of at least Rs 9,173 crore, whereas the ministry had only Rs 6,524 crore. The difference in cost stands at Rs 2,649 crore. Similarly, the difference in cost for 2016-17 stands at a whopping Rs 5,276 crore.

The difference in the amount means either the number of toilets built is inflated or not all the beneficiaries are being paid. Many beneficiaries are supposedly receiving financial assistance after a delay.

Though the MDWS did not provide a formal explanation to an e-mail sent, senior ministry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the number of latrines built also included toilets constructed by people not eligible for incentives and those funded through the MGNREGA, state schemes and corporate funds. It implies that the government is not providing financial assistance to all its targeted households and showing the toilets made under different schemes, including those of states, or by individuals, as its own achievement under the SBM.

“Most states encourage better-off beneficiaries to voluntarily give up their incentive. Many of the people who can afford to build their own toilets decide to go ahead and do so with their own funds, as they realise that they are building toilets for the betterment of their own lives and are not doing it because of a financial incentive provided by the government,” said an official.

“These voluntary declarations usually happen at Gram Sabha gatherings. So many households that do not need the incentive do not demand it, and this also increases the ownership and commitment that the household feels towards the behaviour change that they have adopted,” the official reasoned.  
Another official, who too refused to be named, however, admitted that payments were not being made on time to beneficiaries. “There is an acute shortage of cash for the SBM. So beneficiaries are not being paid on time. We are demanding an additional sum of Rs 8,000 crore from the finance ministry to meet the SBM target,” the official added.

The government would not have faced a dearth of funds had it fulfilled loan conditions set by the World Bank in December 2015. The World Bank had sanctioned a loan of $1.5 billion and the money was to be released in tranches on the basis of performance of the SBM-G. The Union government failed to appoint an independent agency for two years and has missed the first two tranches of the World Bank loan. In fact, the Centre is paying a commitment charge of 0.5 per cent on the sanctioned amount to the World Bank.

“There was delay in appointing the independent agency due to administrative reasons. Now the contract has been awarded (for Rs 37.85 crore) to a consortium of two international independent agencies and they are in the process of finalising the questionnaire for their survey,” the official added. The government expects it will receive the first survey report by early next year.

Overambitious target

Officials in the ministry said they had internally advanced the date of making India ODF by December 31, 2018. And it will focus on the gap areas between January 1, 2019, and October 2, 2019.

The target, however, seems overambitious even by the ministry’s standards. Of the 111.1 million toilets to be built under the SBM-G, the country has built or will be completing at least 49 million toilets by end of the current fiscal year. 
These toilets were built over a period of four years.

Now, to meet the target, the government will have to ensure another 62.1 million toilets are built between April 1, 2018, and October 2, 2019. The target appears ambitious as big states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have not made much progress under the SBM, ostensibly because of “political reasons”.

The MDWS, however, is hopeful of meeting this tall order because of favourable governments in both the states. “We are well on track to achieving not just toilet construction numbers, but an ODF India by October 2, 2019. The programme has gathered momentum across the country and will accelerate further in the coming 12-15 months,” said the first official quoted above.

Information, education, and communication

The prime reason behind the failure of the NBA was people’s unwillingness to use toilets. The states were focused on building toilets, but did not spend funds on IEC activities to convince people to not defecate in the open.

Officials in the ministry admitted that some states were still not spending on IEC under the SBM-G. “The states spend their IEC funds primarily on interpersonal communication. There are a few states that have not spent their entire allocation for IEC in the past few years. To further incentivise appropriate IEC spending, the MDWS has made requisite spending on IEC a condition for future fund release to the state,” the official said.

But the Narendra Modi government itself has cut down funds for IEC activities. IEC constituted 15 per cent of the budget in the NBA, but it was brought down to eight per cent in the current mission.

Avani Kapur¸ director of Accountability Initiative, said only 10 per cent of IEC funds were spent in 2016-17 and to date only 12 per cent had been spent this year.

“In the absence of enough focus on IEC and genuine behaviour change, not everyone is using the constructed toilets. The lack of attention to solid and liquid waste management is also worrying and could result in an even greater public health crisis in the future. Consequently, I fear that India may achieve ODF on paper, measured by toilets constructed, but the current model will not be sustainable for genuine change,” Kapur warned.

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