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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 10:39:23 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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