Sustaining sanitation

Winning a battle is easier than winning the war. In the case of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the fight to make the country open defecation free (ODF) is well on its way to victory, with rural sanitation coverage having jumped from 39 per cent at the start of the mission in October 2014 to over 87 per cent today. While the finishing line of the ODF battle is well in sight, the ODF sustainability war is still in its early stages.

Most time-bound campaigns generate a burst of excitement but, in many cases, their impact eventually fizzles away with time. The Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen (SBM-G), however, aims to be different and, unlike earlier sanitation programmes, intends to make its gains last. While achieving an ODF India by October 2019 is a key goal, the underlying plan is to ensure that the behaviour change achieved between 2014 and 2019 is sustained over time. The journey so far to reduce the number of open defecators from 550 million at the start to less than 150 million today has been quite a success, but the ultimate achievement will be the permanent reorientation of rural India’s attitude and practices with respect to open defecation.

The mission has made more than rapid progress. Nearly 400,000 villages and 400 districts have been declared ODF. Thirteen states and five Union Territories have also achieved ODF status. The recent National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS), conducted under the World Bank support project, confirmed that the SBM-G has been able to ensure that almost everyone who has a toilet, uses it — the usage of toilets is pegged at 93.40 per cent. The survey also re-confirmed the ODF status of 95.6 per cent of ODF verified villages.

Keeping the success of the ODF campaign in mind, the programme has now joined the sustainability war. ODF sustainability, or ODF-S, has now been systematically integrated as almost an entire sub-mission in itself. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) recently issued the ODF-S guidelines to states, which serve as a ready reckoner for continued initiatives to reinforce behaviour change in villages that have already been declared ODF. These guidelines cover a range of considerations to be taken into account when formulating the state’s ODF-S plan, from retaining human resources and financing for capacity building activities to improved engagement strategy with line ministries and mobilising private investment for sustainability.

Some states have come up with sub-programmes of their own to ensure ODF-S. For example, Maharashtra, a recently declared ODF state, has initiated a reward scheme called ‘Sant Gadgebaba Swachhata Abhiyan’, with direct outputs towards supporting the continual use of toilets, keeping a watch on open defecation, the growth of involvement of households in sanitation and progress in personal hygiene.

An important aspect of ODF-S is ensuring that the toilets being constructed today are of good quality and design. While encouraging the states to embed good practices to ensure quality and right design during construction, as well as the quality of the behaviour change communication campaigns through Swachhagrahis, the MDWS has also taken a more hands-on approach towards monitoring quality. Teams of officers and consultants from the MDWS go on field visits, at least twice a month, to capture ground reality in terms or the quality of the behaviour change process being followed, as well as the quality of infrastructure being created. I, myself, have been on over 110 state and field visits in the 28 months of my holding office.

Our neighbours Bangladesh witnessed a sanitation revolution of their own some years back, leading to the country being declared ODF. However, today Bangladesh is faced with a major sustainability challenge, as many of the toilets built then were of single pit technology. They now have to go through a massive retrofitting exercise as many of their toilets have become dysfunctional. This is an important lesson for us on the importance of ensuring sustainability in design. While the SBM-G promotes the sustainable twin-pit toilet technology for most parts of the country, this example is important as a constant reminder that it is important to continually monitor the quality of construction and promote the retrofitting of toilets wherever required.

Even more important than the quality of toilet construction is the quality of the behaviour change communication and sustaining of the recent habit formation of usage of toilets. Relapses can only be prevented by a continuous vigil. Hence, the importance of ensuring that local communities and state governments devise incentives and mechanisms to sustain the changed behaviour.

Later this year on October 2, 2018, the fourth anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission, India will host one of the largest gathering of policy leaders on sanitation, as ministers of sanitation from over 80 countries, global sanitation experts, top representatives of multilateral and bilateral agencies, national and international philanthropists, and sanitation practitioners from around the world will participate in the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention (MGISC), being organised in New Delhi. The Convention will share India’s incredible story of the SBM-G and also help us learn from the sustainability experiences of some other countries, as the SBM enters its final year of implementation.
The writer is Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India. Views are personal

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