Shyama V. Ramani
In 2013, India became the fourth country in the world (after Russia, the US and EU) and the only emerging nation to launch a Mars probe into space. But it remains part of the group of 45 developing countries with less than 50 per cent sanitation coverage, with many citizens practising open defecation, either due to lack of access to a toilet or because of personal preference.
According to the Indian census of 2011, only 46.9 per cent of the 246.6 million households in India had their own toilet facilities, while 3.2 per cent had access to public toilets. In this context, the remaining 49.8 per cent households had no option but to defecate in the open. As a point of comparison, in 2011 more than half of the households (53.2 per cent) had a mobile phone. In rural areas, where nearly 69 per cent of India’s population lives, 69.3 per cent of households lack toilets; in urban areas that number falls to 18.6 per cent.
At first glance, such statistics and technological capabilities alongside large-scale open defecation is a puzzle. On the supply side, it does not seem difficult for a country that can construct sophisticated and complex cell phone technology to develop the capacity to build simple low-cost toilets. And for users, a toilet evidently offers more social benefits in terms of health and human dignity than a telephone. Yet the citizenry has not enthusiastically adopted low-cost toilets, especially rural households. Why? Let us explore the reasons for this paradoxical outcome.
At a systemic level, economists have pointed out that technical and commercial availability and consumer acceptability of an innovation are the two main drivers of its diffusion. Evidently both are a problem in India. For firms, it makes business sense to provide mobile phones in a variety of quality price-ranges as the network infrastructure is well developed and demand for this communication tool is assured. However, they are not interested in selling low-cost toilets to the poor, as the need for that product is not supported by a willingness or capacity to pay for it. Because companies are disinclined to market a product that requires investment in awareness and demand creation, the state must step in.
From the mid-1980s till the late 1990s, when India adopted economic reform, toilets were distributed free via the top-down state-funded Central Rural Sanitation Programme. But the programme, which assumed that availability would automatically lead to usage, failed because most beneficiaries did not see the need or desire for sanitation. Consequently, in the new millennium, the Indian government switched to demand-focused interventions. Today, the state is a financier for public-private partnerships involving NGOs, micro-finance companies and other social enterprises that interact closely with the targeted beneficiaries to provide accompaniment and education for sanitation literacy and use.
The Total Sanitation Campaign launched in April 1999, emphasised that “information, education and communication” should precede sanitation construction to ensure sustained demand and behavioural change. State investment in sanitation thereafter received another fillip under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is the first politician since Mahatma Gandhi to emphatically underscore, through major media campaigns, that a “clean India” is necessary for the well-being of its citizens.
In October 2014, Modi inaugurated the Swachh Bharath Mission, or the Clean India Mission. The programme recognises that availability does not guarantee acceptability. The central objective of the mission is to eliminate open defecation in India by 2019, not just to ensure universal sanitation coverage. The target is to transform villages and cities into “open defecation-free” communities, meaning they demonstrate: toilet access, toilet use and toilet technology that keeps both people and the environment safe. The programme invests in capacity building in the form of trained personnel, financial incentives and systems for planning and monitoring to ensure behavioural change. States are given flexibility in terms of implementation. Today, a variety of experiments, from the national to village level, are underway to achieve Modi’s Clean India mission.
It is imperative to ensure quality construction in sanitation drives and trained rural masons for individual construction initiatives. For an emerging country like India, it is easier to take part in exploratory missions to Mars than to tackle its sanitation challenge.
The former can be addressed through a linear process spearheaded by the advanced, well-resourced Indian Space Research Organisation, while the latter calls for systemic change encompassing thousands of towns and villages. For India to meet its goal of eliminating open defecation, it will need cooperation and coordination between a diverse variety of systemic actors, generation of knowledge products in the form of accessible curriculum for masons, and community engagement to build only safe toilets – and to use them well.
The writer is a professorial fellow at the United Nations University.