Across the Aisle: Then and now – The model is flawed

How does the government change the behaviour of its citizens in the matter of defecation given the social structure of a village with limited resources?

Written by P Chidambaram | Updated: June 5, 2016 10:39 am


Swacch Bharat, Clean India, Modi Swacch Bharat, Chidambaram Swacch Bharat, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, open defecation India, Chidambaram, P Chidambaram, public toilets, public toilets India Until some years ago, most village dwellings did not have a toilet. People defecated in the open.

‘Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Clean India’ cannot be a slogan or an event. It has to become a habit, nay, a passion. It involves many factors including:

*Social structure

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, with the objective of eliminating open defecation by 2017, was apparently designed after taking into account these and other factors. In the early months of its execution, I discovered, in my constituency, that the design was flawed.

Village social structure: Sivaganga is a predominantly rural constituency with 627 panchayats, 16 town panchayats and three small municipal towns. The bulk of the population lives in villages. A panchayat has, on average, 5 or 6 villages and some hamlets.

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In a typical village, habitations or neighbourhoods are organised along caste lines. Each caste group, generally speaking, lives apart. The Dalits, invariably, live in their own quarter. There is acute awareness of one’s caste but, for the most part, there is no recurring caste conflict. Village folk have to live and work together for their existence.

Until some years ago, most village dwellings did not have a toilet. People defecated in the open. No one thought open defecation was wrong or unhygienic or a shame. Its most debilitating effect is exposure of children to helminths or intestinal worms (also known as environmental enteropathy) that leads to stunting in children.

As brick houses replaced thatched houses, some houses got toilets. Young men returning from work in cities or towns or with the Army demanded a toilet at home and helped build one. Most members of the family used the toilet. Small children did not and many women and men preferred open defecation.

How does the government change the behaviour of its citizens in the matter of defecation given the social structure of a village and the limitations of technology, money, execution capability and administration? Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan thought it had the answers, but it did not. 30 per cent of the toilets built had become dysfunctional. Swachh Bharat thinks it has the answers, but it does not.

Subsidy-based models: There are two obvious solutions to the problem of absence of toilets — a private (household) toilet or a community (public) toilet. Let’s examine each one of them.

A household toilet cannot be connected to a drainage system, because there is none in the village. Hence the toilet must be connected to a pit. The pit must be emptied periodically. Usually, the toilet will not have a water tap, and so water must be taken to the toilet by the user. If water is scarce or has to be fetched from a distance, the use of the toilet will diminish. If the whole family, including children, use the toilet it must be cleaned every day, and that will require more water.

The alternative is a community (public) toilet. Before one is built for the village, the following questions must be answered:

1. A public toilet can be built only on government land or acquired land. If the land is in the middle of one habitation, will all caste groups be able to access it every day?
2. If the public toilet is built in or near the Dalit habitation, will the other caste groups use it at all?
3. Because it is a public toilet that will be used round the clock, how will the panchayat ensure adequate supply of water round the clock?
4. The responsibility of keeping the public toilet clean will vest in the panchayat, but who will the panchayat employ for that purpose? The answer is an unspeakable truth in the India of the 21st century, and you know the answer. Few are willing to take up the job of keeping public toilets clean in villages.
5. Will the public toilet be a pay toilet or a free toilet?

In Tamil Nadu, successive governments took up a scheme to build public toilets in villages. I found that most public toilets had been abandoned or had become cattle sheds or dens for drinking and gambling.

Unsurprising findings: I was therefore not surprised to read the findings of a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO): About 240 lakh household toilets have been built since 2013-14, but 860 lakh toilets remain to be built. In rural India, 57 per cent of the household toilets have no water for use. 44 per cent of those toilets had no arrangement for liquid waste disposal and “it would be safe to presume the residents do not use the toilets”. Of the toilets that had an “arrangement” for waste disposal, the arrangement in 47 per cent of the cases was draining the waste into a local pond, nala or river!

The toilet-building programme requires investment in IEC — information, education and communication, but the money that has been provided is too little (8 per cent of the outlay). The subsidy-based model has been severely criticised. Bangladesh has adopted the Community-led Total Sanitation (CLTS) model that laid emphasis on IEC and has achieved impressive results.

India must re-think its strategy if open defecation must be eliminated by 2019.
Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan failed to achieve its objectives but, at least, it was not converted into a public relations exercise. Swachh Bharat, so far, is an ‘event’ in the long-running story of event management by the most proficient event managers that the country has seen in a long time.

Website: @Pchidambaram_IN

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  1. H
    Hemant Kumar
    Jun 5, 2016 at 10:34 am
    Mr. Chidambaram is having a pessimistic outlook. Such leaders don't inspire public and that is why they get entry from backdoor in Parliament. There are success stories of water harvesting in villages and water table raised. If people are encouraged, Swatch Bharat Annoyance can be a story all over India. Mr. Chidambaram takes example of his consuent only creating despair. But India is a vast country having varied topography and villages and Mr. Modi is quite familiar with the ground realities. He left his house in the service of the country. He has enough experience. Mr. Chidambaram is an arm chair intellectual.
    1. S
      Jun 5, 2016 at 3:28 am
      We the people, in middle cl, upper middle cl, the rich and the super rich-we know at a personal level toilet costs more than a bedroom. Why is that? its not rocket science-we want to have such nice bathrooms and toilets that we need to feel the place;br/gt;lt;br/gt;When it comes to toilets for Aam admi of India or even public toilets-if we construct them in such a way no one feels like going near them- or for want of clean water and adequate maintenance, it "stinks" all these big ideas are likely to fall;br/gt;lt;br/gt;I recommend the Govt to Invest more and more money-"without corrupt wastage" and build toilets with adequate lighting, fresh air entry, easy to maintain, use pleasant colours-please use glazed tiles-otherwise no good, put up signs and messages and persist with a campaign to change people's mindset .lt;br/gt;Try and maintain the space around toilets-nice with;br/gt;Drum it into everyone-that you use, you clean it;br/gt;You leave the toilet in such a way you want it to be when you;br/gt;lt;br/gt;This has to go on for years -for people to;br/gt;lt;br/gt;People from congress party need to be part of it rather then criticise what's being;br/gt;Time has never been so good clean up;br/gt;lt;br/gt;I would like to ask one question to Mr Chidambaram- did you ever try and show these villagers-how good a toilet can be/how pleasant it is -to use a toilet, in summer, in winter, when it rains, at night- when you can have that little personal space for something so private and so basic.
      1. K
        Jun 5, 2016 at 1:01 pm
        Looking at the author's name, didn't bother to read the article, and straight came to the comments section. As Mani Shankar Iyer dirties the columns of NDTV constantly criticising BJP and praising Sonia and Rahul, it seems Chidambaram has taken the same job in Indian Express.
        1. K
          Koni Reddy
          Jun 5, 2016 at 8:15 pm
          BJP eradicated/eradicating corruptions and stop looters and terrorism in this country? Of course, for corrupts, looters and terrorists, this is nothing and for these people 'no achievements'. Raj - can you tell us what contribution and achievements you have done for our country in your life time?
          1. K
            Koni Reddy
            Jun 5, 2016 at 8:39 pm
            Showing us pc's paper degree from 'Harvard' has no value to our nation and his paper degree has not provided food and shelters to our poor farmers and needy people. Corrupts, looters and terrorists also have many such paper degrees. Without ethics, 100s of paper degrees would do nothing either for that paper degree holder or anyone in this country. Hard work, ethics and contribution to the country with patriotism are the matters here for the nation building. Common man doesn't want criminals and thugs to take control of the country but everyone wants honest and true nationalistic leaders like Modiji. Yes, patriot Modiji cannot be compared with cheap and selfish Hand-Hawala-walah slaves of foreign waitress, who cheated us and looted our exchequer and made our people remain poor and uneducated for decades.
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