In 1937, Gandhiji, replying to a letter received from Birbhum, Bengal, wrote, “An ideal village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation.” Having just celebrated the 70th anniversary of Independence, this is a good time to take stock of how the prime minister’s flagship programme, the (SBM), is progressing towards Gandhiji’s dream of a clean India with all its villages becoming open defecation free (ODF).
Launched in October 2014 and scheduled to culminate by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji, the SBM is close to completing three years. Overall, progress is good, with rural sanitation coverage having gone up from 39 per cent to 67 per cent in three years and over 230 million people in rural India have stopped defecating in the open. Five states, 186 districts and over 2,31,000 villages have been declared as ODF.
The major achievement, however, is not a spurt in the construction of toilets, but the focus on behaviour change, and the rapidly spreading public awareness of the need for sanitation and usage of toilets. The most significant policy shift in this regard has been the move from outputs (number of toilets built) to outcomes (ODF villages), since ODF signifies the entire village unit makes this commitment. There is increasing realisation in rural India that, in addition to the violation of dignity, especially that of women and girls, open defecation significantly adds to the disease burden, especially of children below the age of five.
It is one thing to build physical infrastructure like roads, bridges and power plants and quite another to engage 550 million people to fight against the centuries-old practice of open defecation. The SBM seeks to carry out one of the largest behaviour change campaigns in history, mainly through effective information, education and communication (IEC).
At one end of the IEC spectrum is the use of mass media: Print and electronic, using celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan leading a “Darwaza Bandh” (on open defecation) campaign. At the other end is the use of interpersonal communication, where trained grass roots level motivators, or swachhagrahis, work under an incentive-based system to “trigger” behaviour change by stimulating community-level demand for toilets. Involving locally elected representatives, grass roots-level organisations, NGOs and school students in spreading awareness on sanitation is also a key aspect of the SBM’s approach to IEC.
The SBM ambitiously aims at having at least one trained grassroots-level swachhagrahi in each village in India, of which over 1,50,000 are already in place. Once a village declares itself as ODF, verification of the latter status becomes key for which the SBM guidelines provide for a 90-day window from the date of ODF declaration. The verification process also allows for any gaps or errors in ODF status to be rectified.
Currently, verification of ODF villages stands at around 56 per cent. To accelerate the verification process, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has recently issued policy guidelines that state governments will be eligible for release of the second instalment of central funds only if they have fully verified all their ODF villages. The programme also has a fairly robust system of verification at district and state level. At the national level, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, carries out separate checks as well as third party sample surveys by independent organisations. A national 1,40,000-household survey, carried out by the Quality Council of India during May-June 2017, found that national usage of toilets was 91 per cent.
The emphasis on sustainability is what differentiates SBM from previous sanitation programmes. Post ODF-declaration, it is possible that the village may witness some “slip back” into open defecation due to old habits. It took courage and conviction for the PM to publically commit to make India open defecation free in a span of five years, a goal which many thought was impossible to achieve. There is still a fair way to go but, given the progress made so far, the acceleration expected over the coming 12-15 months and the active engagement of millions of people, the goal is definitely achievable.