A Giant Flop Scheme Courtesy Modi

The Hindu carried on Gandhi Jayanti a hilarious colour photograph taken last year of Modi inaugurating his Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). As the PWD throws a few leaves at his feet, Modi picks up a broom, in the company of another five who also pick up their brooms - including one of his security staff - to help Modi brush aside the leaves that are so green in colour that they have clearly just been picked rather than actually fallen by the wayside. A great photo-op but illustrative of the total lack of thought that has gone into framing the allegedly "new" programme that Modi announced from the ramparts of the Lal Kila in his first Independence Day speech last year, arms flailing like a windmill but not an iota of a new idea to mark any departure from the already extant Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Just one more jumla to add to his already large score, designed to befool, not lead to new vistas.

Unsurprisingly, one year later, available information indicates that the programme is a giant flop that will never reach its target of making India "open defecation-free" (ODF) by 2019. Perhaps results might have been better if Modi had been shown, Gandhi-like, cleaning his own toilet. But even letting that pass, if Modi had shown some understanding of, and course-correcting, what was going wrong with the previous, UPA-inspired Total Sanitation Campaign, the outcomes might have been more encouraging. For, in the words of an expert, Prof. Dean Spears, "Modi's Swachch Bharat Abhiyan is essentially the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan of the previous government and the Total Sanitation Programme with a new name".

In the run-up to the Twelfth Plan, as this column had pointed out on the same occasion last year, numerous academic studies had established that the problem was not the building of toilets but getting the beneficiaries to use them. This is precisely what the "new" Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) should have been measuring: are Government-built toilets being used by the whole family? Instead, the SBA web-site shows that they are still building latrines without any idea of how many are being turned into cattle-sheds, how many members of a household are still going out into the open despite having in-house toilets, and why this is so. As the World Bank has pointed out in a recent survey of sanitation in India, if you measure only the physical inputs without measuring the social outcomes, you end up "manag(ing) what you can measure".

It does not take much to impose a toilet on a household (even if the cost of a Government toilet in India is Rs. 12,000 per unit as against Rs. 2,000 in neighbouring Bangladesh). The focus ought to be on motivating people to use the facility, removing from their minds misconceptions about purity and pollution, patiently explaining that millions of babies and children are in danger of losing their lives and their health because of open defecation in the vicinity of habitations. This is the missing element in Modi's SBA.

In the absence of any government surveys measuring such parameters, despite the provision in the SBA guidelines that they do so, it has been left to dedicated academics to make sample surveys to discover the truth of the matter. And what they have discovered is truly disturbing. SQUAT (Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends) have found that in only 26 per cent of rural households is there no open defecation although, on a national average, over 40 percent of these households have in-house toilets. Males in large numbers, even in highly prosperous areas like rural Punjab, go into the open, leaving the in-house toilet to be used by old women and young brides.       

There are several reasons why this is so. The first is notions of purity and pollution - that it is "dirty" to deposit one's faeces within your own house. Such misconceptions have to be deliberately addressed at both the household and community levels. A government propagandist cannot do it; it will have to be done by the more enlightened members of the community at community meetings such as the Gram or ward Sabhas. Another is the absence of adequate running water to make it feasible to repeatedly use a toilet. This requires neighbourhood engineering solutions with day-to-day management through local 'barefoot' plumbers. Third, the absence of electricity renders most government toilets unusable. This too requires neighbourhood engineering solutions and a fleet of 'barefoot' electricians. Fourth, the mistaken but widespread belief that pit latrines will quickly fill up and then have to be manually cleaned. In fact, it takes up to five years to fill a 60 cubic feet pit. This  too requires knowledgeable local 'wise men' patiently explaining matters to households and communities. The explanations will be believed to the extent that they are carried by local advocacy groups speaking in the local dialect. Perhaps most important of all, communities have to be alerted to the dangers of open defecation, so that they clearly apprehend that the continuation of traditional practices is a serious threat to the health, indeed the very lives, of their children and other loved ones.

It is not just ignorance or blind prejudice that comes in the way of SBA but practical difficulties that only truly empowered Gram Sabhas and panchayats could remove by motivating the community as a whole to recognize the dangers of present practices and the advantages of altering modes of social behaviour and cultural mores. Such sanitation extension work cannot be done by sarkari babus and certainly not by exhortations of the Prime Minister bellowing at ordinary mortals through the exercise of his considerable lung power. This can only be done patiently and quietly in village after village by local leaders speaking the idiom of the common people. To make a success of SBA, we need empowered Gram Sabhas where empowered panchayat leaders are held responsible by those who elected them.

25 years ago, a young Prime Minister, wise beyond his years, clearly saw this. He, therefore, included "water and sanitation" in the Eleventh Schedule which contains the illustrative list of subjects that the Constitution indicates for devolution to the panchayats. It is only when  that vision is fulfilled that we will get an ODF India. Tragically, Modi does not believe in Panchayat Raj. Certainly, as Chief Minister Gujarat, he ran one of the least impressive panchayat systems in the country. Not once did Gujarat come anywhere near being declared the state with a relative good panchayat system or as a state progressing towards that goal. So, his SBA is bound to fail unless his centralizing tendencies are lobotomized. There is little hope of that, for although he jabbers on about "cooperative federalism", that is restricted to power-sharing between the Centre and the States. The panchayats, despite being the Constitutionally sanctified third tier of government, are nowhere in the picture. And until they are placed absolutely centre-stage, SBA will go nowhere.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

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