Diving into a revolutionhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/swachh-bharat-mission-clean-india-drive-5550967/

Diving into a revolution

Swachh Bharat Mission has had to overcome a ‘degree of difficulty’ to bring about behavioural change.

Swachh Bharat Mission, Swachh Bharat abhiyan, clean india drive, clean india mission
Lessons from the Swachh Bharat Mission could be usefully applied to other programmes requiring intensive behaviour change campaigns at scale. (File Photo)

It may seem a bit of a stretch, or even a twist, to compare the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with the sport of diving, but there is some method in this seeming madness. Let me put you out of your suspense: The common factor is the “Degree of Difficulty” (DoD) multiplication factor. The DoD factor is well recognised in the sport of diving, where it is a numerical value given to a dive, multiplied by the judge’s score of the dive.

The DoD is based on a formula that adds together the different components of a dive. Obviously, the more moves (typically twists and somersaults) attempted in a dive, the greater the value and, therefore, the greater the potential for scoring points. Likewise, under the SBM, there are at least two additional and complex “moves” being attempted compared to typical infrastructure programmes: One, changing behaviour by getting people to use toilets and stop defecating in the open and two, sustaining the changed behaviour over time. The two extra “moves” make the SBM much more difficult to implement. When “judging” SBM, however, most commentators do not factor in the DoD factor in the implementation process.

The SBM’s primary emphasis on the usage of toilets transforms it from an infrastructure-focused “toilet construction” programme to a much more complex behaviour change social revolution. The scale of the challenge at the start of the SBM in October 2014, changing the behaviour of 550 million people living in rural India, significantly added to the DoD. To compound the DoD further, the SBM was marketing a product (household toilets) for which, in most cases, there was no intrinsic demand.

Equilibrium in markets is more easily attained when demand matches supply. For example, electricity, roads and metro rail are all intrinsically in high demand by the intended beneficiaries. So, when supply of these products is facilitated by national flagship programmes, the markets reach some sort of equilibrium. The main challenge in the latter markets where demand exists is efficient and speedy implementation at scale, which is itself no easy task. The SBM “market”, however, is more complex, where there is no inherent demand for “goods” (toilets) due to a “preference” for defecating in the open. From the supply side, therefore, the programme needed to provide both toilets as well as a behaviour programme at scale for changing preferences.


The gurus of marketing tell us that you may have a good product, but you still need to promote it because there may be other similar products in the market which compete with yours. In the case of the SBM, the major competition to toilets was the deeply ingrained habit of open defecation and cultural norm of not having a toilet near one’s residence. While an electric bulb is clearly preferred over a flickering lamp, a black top road over a kuccha path and rapid transit over traffic jams, the deeply ingrained habit of open defecation posed stiff competition to the alternative new products on offer: Toilet plus behaviour change. Demand for a toilet had to be stimulated to wean people away from the habit of open defecation and this was challenging.

When the prime minister addressed the nation from the Red Fort on August 15, 2014, and spoke about “dignity of women” and the importance of providing toilets to women and girls, many people were shocked because this was a departure from established tradition. The surprise was in part because sanitation was a far from obvious topic for a PM to talk about during his first major national address. But that speech helped to take the toilet out of the closet and put it out in the open, the first promotion of the product, and the first salvo against open defecation.

The four major challenges we faced were the 4 Ss: Scale — 550 million people needed to change their behaviour; Speed — the programme had to be implemented in 5 years; Stigma — centuries-old taboos, for example, it was impure to have a toilet inside or near the home, needed to be challenged; and Sustainability — having to make the recently changed behaviour stick. There was little prior experience of doing all this, which made the learning curve, and the degree of difficulty, even steeper.

Previous behaviour change attempts in sanitation had focused more on individual households. The SBM learned by doing that if the competing product to toilet usage was open defecation, then that had to be tackled not by engaging with individuals and trying to persuade them to “buy” our product — an individual household twin-pit latrine — but by marketing the product to an entire village community. This was done by using different “triggers” to convince them that open defecation was a public “bad” and that usage of toilets was a public “good”. It took great effort to have trained village motivators (swachhagrahis) familiar with the local language and idiom work to convince the community as a whole that the health and dignity of the entire village were at stake if they persisted in open defecation. It was extremely painstaking work and it literally “took a village”, peer pressure and whole-hearted community participation to make a village ODF.

The degree of difficulty was intensified by the fact that sustaining the change in behaviour is even more difficult than achieving it. To use electoral idiom, you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Once the enthusiasm and energy of the ODF movement achieves its objective, sustaining the outcome in the cold light of the following day takes even more hard work by way of having systems and incentives in place.

Lessons from the SBM could be usefully applied to other programmes requiring intensive behaviour change campaigns at scale. Here, it would be useful if the diving analogy of DoD were applied to similar programmes attempting to market public good products not intrinsically in demand.