Truth vs Hype: Crores of Swachh Bharat Toilets, But Where are the Users?

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Lucknow:  At Parvar Purab village, an hour from Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow, newly-built toilets dot the front yards of modest homes. On them are brightly painted slogans - 'swachh rahenge, swasth rahenge (stay clean, stay healthy)' and 'bahu betiya dur na jaye, ghar mein shauchalay banvaye (so your daughters don't have to go far, build toilets in homes)'.

Residents tell us they were all built just a month or two ago.

Across India, toilets like these are springing up under the NDA's Swachh Bharat mission, an ambitious scaling up of the UPA's Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, which claimed to have built 1 crore toilets in two years. The Swachh Bharat mission hopes to increase that tenfold: building 11 crore toilets in five years, at the rate of one toilet every second.

But Nirmal Bharat faltered: on paper, it was meant to be demand-driven, which means toilets are only built if people ask for them. In October last year, when we visited villages in UP's Sitapur district, we found, in village after village, that toilets built by the local pradhan or district administration. No one had consulted villagers on the location, design or operation of the toilet. No one had briefed them on the health risks of open defecation. As a result, most of the toilets were unused - some turned to store rooms for grain and fertilizer.

A 2013 study of toilet usage conducted by the Delhi-based RICE institute across five north Indian states found that over 40 per cent of households with a functional latrine had at least one person defecating in the open.

Swachh Bharat appears to be going down the same route. As per the programme guidelines, each household is entitled to Rs 12,000 to build a toilet, an increase of Rs 10,000 under Nirmal Bharat mission.

But in Parvar Purab, the construction had been unilaterally carried out by the pradhan and panchayat secretary. No one seemed to know how much the new toilets cost.

"They brought all the material, cement, bricks, everything was bought by them. They didn't tell us the cost," said one woman. As with the Nirmal Bharat mission, there was no effort to build literacy over use of toilets.

The pradhan, a local god-woman named Aarti Shukla, told us that officials were under pressure to meet construction targets. "This scheme was introduced and immediately we, the pradhans, were told that we had to finish building the toilets within a month," she said. "So we did not have the time to gather everyone and inform them about the purpose of the scheme."

Ram Kripal Yadav, the Union Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation (the department that oversees the construction of toilets) said that there was a real demand for the toilets. "We can't go and forcibly make toilets in someone's home without their permission," Mr Yadav said.

But the Swachh Bharat mission's claims of constructing one crore toilets in one year suggest that like the UPA, the NDA government is focused almost solely on meeting construction targets. It also means that it has spent close to Rs 12,000 crore of the programme's whopping Rs 1.34 lakh crore budget, without an indication, at least until now, of toilet usage.

"One of the great things included in the Swachh Bharat guidelines was a survey (to monitor usage of new toilets)," said Sangeeta Vyas, Managing Director of RICE. "But, we haven't heard anything about this survey since December."

While the construction budget has expanded, the allotment for Information, Education and Communication (IEC) under the Swachh Bharat mission has been halved from 15 per cent to eight per cent of the overall budget. In Uttar Pradesh, only three per cent of IEC funds had been spent since October last year.

As the Swachh Bharat scheme enters its second year, the government claims it is trying to prioritise a shift in attitudes. An official told us that they have conveyed to states that no toilets will be built without public demand.

To underline this, regular workshops are being held in New Delhi for district collectors from across the country on how to trigger behavioural change. One of the speakers was Aarti Dogra, the collector, until recently, of Bikaner district in Rajasthan.

Ms Dogra has been credited with making the district largely open defecation-free through a sustained, two-year-long campaign that began in 2013, and which used women's honour as a persuasive tool.

"We talked about the dignity of gram panchayat as being able to provide a dignified atmosphere for women," she told us. "And when women became the central focus point, the issue became that any village which didn't have toilets, whose women and whose daughters and daughters-in-law were going out, this issue became the lack of dignity so to speak of the village," she said.

In contrast to the government-driven construction model being followed by Nirmal Bharat and replicated by the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the people of Bikaner were encouraged to build their own toilets.

"If you get something built by the people themselves, they will use it and they will construct it according to their needs. So, throughout we would emphasise that don't look towards us for funds. We would only pay the subsidy after the entire gram panchayat became open defecation-free. Now, out of the 219 gram panchayats in Bikaner, about 196 have been made open defecation-free and hopefully, now the rest of the district will soon catch up," Ms Dogra added.

Like Bikaner, the government is keen to point to other districts where change is taking place: in Chhattisgarh, Odisha or Karnataka. But in most of these cases, the changes predate the Swachh Bharat mission and are based on the individual initiative of the local collector.

More fundamentally, these isolated instances of championing a community-led model do not seem to have radically changed Swachh Bharat's subsidy-led, top-down construction-driven approach.

But as Ms Dogra told us, "You have to create a mindset change. As an administrative system, we will have to start looking at the open defecation-free communities as against just counting the number of toilets that are being built."


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