Prime Minister Modi announced his Swachh Bharat campaign to much media fanfare. Central government employees helped kick off the campaign by sweeping parts of Delhi and taking a cleanliness pledge. Broom in hand, Modi himself led the way. While sceptics may see it as yet another expertly orchestrated public relations campaign, the PM’s decision to take up such a vital yet neglected issue carries both symbolic and substantive value. Public hygiene and sanitary conditions across India are nothing short of appalling. Campaigns to raise awareness and civic responsibility are desperately needed. On the symbolic side, having public employees lead the campaign on Gandhi Jayanti demonstrates that all citizens, irrespective of class, caste or gender, have a joint responsibility to keep public spaces clean. As for substance, the government is committing more than Rs 2 lakh crore in public spending by 2019. A large part of this will go towards building new toilets.
The PM seems sincere in his concern. But like its predecessor, the current administration has not yet taken up the challenge of implementation. The “problem” of poor sanitation cannot be reduced to the mere ignorance of hygiene. Nor is it simply a cultural practice of open defecation.
Among other things, it requires a major investment in state capacity to deliver basic sanitation services, a point that is entirely missing from public discourse. Sanitation also has a serious caste and gender dimension, which the Indian state refuses to see.
These institutional blinders run deep in the Indian state. The UPA also ran a toilet campaign as part of its Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. During fieldwork in rural Uttar Pradesh, I came across several villages that had implemented the scheme. In one such village, the gram pradhan had won the Nirmal Gram Puruskar. The award was given to panchayats that were fully sanitised and free from open defecation. And yet none of the toilets in that village were working. Instead, they were being used to store firewood. Women and adolescent girls continued to go out into the sugarcane fields. In Badaun, two teenaged cousins who had gone to relieve themselves in the fields were found hanging from a tree. The district magistrate at the time had been awarded for his campaign to eliminate manual scavenging and dry or insanitary latrines. These examples point to the fact that the Indian state is good when it comes to launching campaigns, but woefully weak when it comes to ensuring that a toilet actually works and gets used.
To put it another way, the Indian state has demonstrated its capacity to put in place physical infrastructure but flounders miserably when it comes to routine maintenance and monitoring. The latter activities are more complex and depend, among other things, on the social infrastructure within each community. The PM is aware that short-term awareness campaigns and new toilets are not enough, which is why his administration has made “behaviour change” a priority. A change in behaviour, however, can only take place when the public invests in the maintenance of toilet infrastructure and monitors its usage. That investment, in turn, implies repeat interactions between the state, civil society and citizens.
As it stands, India’s public agencies are ill-equipped to handle complex tasks, which all but ensures that government schemes fail in implementation. Take the seemingly straightforward task of providing water supply for toilets. To build and maintain running water, local officials must cooperate across departments to obtain the relevant information, inputs and clearances. They must also seek cooperation from citizens and coordinate with panchayats. A lack of administrative resources, combined with extremely rigid bureaucratic norms, undermines the state’s ability to coordinate the simplest of tasks. To understand and respond to the more sensitive issues related to gender and caste seems a tall order. Some citizens, for instance, may not feel comfortable using a public toilet, perhaps because of the location or the social stigma attached to it. Without any meaningful opportunity to give substantive feedback, those who rely on public resources are effectively disempowered. Slowly but surely, they become dejected and disengage from public campaigns.
These problems repeat themselves in virtually every public service — primary education, for example. Modi has made sanitation a public issue. He now has the opportunity to move beyond symbolic politics and lead substantive reforms, particularly within local implementing agencies. Without significant reforms around policy implementation, Swachh Bharat will remain yet another unmet aspiration.
The writer is assistant professor, Harvard Business School
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