So how well has the Prime Minister been able to convert this high-voltage sanitation campaign into sustained action on the ground? For the moment, it is near impossible to answer this question. This is because the current administrative database (or management information system) for sanitation is deeply flawed.
In December 2015, researchers from the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, set out to track the experiences of beneficiaries of the government's sanitation interventions by conducting a household survey using the government's database. The objective was to identify households whose names featured in the database as having "achieved sanitation" by constructing a toilet using some money provided by the government. We hit our first bottleneck when we tried to pilot the survey. Households whose names featured on the government list couldn't be found and; on close inspection, we discovered that the lists were populated by duplicate names and ghost beneficiaries. To top this, there where many instances when the names of villages and habitations were misspelt, making a full-fledged audit of the government database impossible. Eventually, we identified 1,500 households in our sample of 7,500 spread across 10 districts in five states, that, in fact, featured in the government's database.
It would be reasonable to expect that these households would have toilets even if they weren't using them. Much to our surprise, we found that nearly 1/3rd households didn't have toilets. A further 36% of households that had toilets reported that these were unusable. There were district variations. Nalanda and Udaipur had the largest gaps between the toilets reported and the actual presence of these them as compared to other districts like Satara, where this was not the case.
By government rules, every household whose name features in the achievement list ought to have been "monitored" by a government official and to have received some money as part of the toilet construction incentive drive. We found that as many as 38% households whose names featured in the achievement list had not been visited by a government official. More interestingly a mere 60% of those who had applied for money from the government actually reported receiving it. So for all intents and purposes, featuring in the Swachh Bharat Mission's MIS is no guarantee that a household has a toilet, or if it does, that this toilet has been supported through government financing in any way.
Our field work suggests that the primary reason for this data mess is the sheer lack of capacity at the block and district level where this data is compiled. Most districts complained of a lack of staff including data operators. Consequently, those officials who are in-position are now overburdened as districts are under pressure to meet targets, leading to obvious errors.
Gaps in the administrative data system apart from our survey also identified other critical limitations in the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission. Most of the districts we surveyed report low toilet coverage: only half of our surveyed households reported having a toilet and open defecation is very high.
The good news is that toilets are being constructed especially in areas that need it most. Since April 2014 (when sanitation first came in to sharp political focus), low coverage districts such as Jhalawar, Rajasthan (7% toilet coverage in 2011 census) Sagar, Madhya Pradesh (11% coverage in 2011) and Purnea, Bihar (9% coverage in 2011) have seen some movement in toilet construction. But much of this construction is taking place with minimal government assistance. A mere 24% of households that had constructed toilets between April 2014 and December 2015 had received any money from government.
This low government support is not because households didn't want money. 94% of our sample met the government's eligibility criteria for financial incentives and more than half of these eligible beneficiaries had applied for government assistance. However, only 1/5th actually received any money from the government. This despite the fact that allocations for rural sanitation have nearly quadrupled increasing from Rs 2,300 crores in 2013-14 to Rs 9, 000 crores in 2016-17.
But what was even more worrying is that 61% of of our sample had no knowledge of the government's toilet construction incentive program under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
What explains this? One of the most important contributions of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the PM's own engagement in the sanitation drive is the recognition that the challenge of sanitation can only be addressed through a concerted effort in awareness-raising and changing behaviour. In its guidelines, the Swachh Bharat Mission clearly highlights the importance of awareness drives and goes so far as to recommend that state governments appoint Swachhta Doots or Swachhta Senas in every village. These Swachhta Doots would be tasked with engaging citizens in conversation about sanitation and promoting toilet usage. But for all the high-voltage campaigns, the Swachh Bharat Mission has failed to put its money where its mouth is. This will come as a surprise to most readers who have been treated to Vidya Balan's appeals to the Indian public to use toilets; expenditure on Information Education and Communication (IEC) - government parlance for awareness programs - decreased from 8% of total expenditure in 2013-14 to 1% in 2015-16.
It should be no surprise then that for large parts of India, the Swachh Bharat Mission remains invisible. The numbers from our survey are telling. Only 6% of the households were aware of Swachhta Doots in their village. A mere 10% reported an awareness programme on sanitation being conducted in their village, and only 3% of households reported being visited by someone from within the government to explain the benefits of the programmme. Thus even people who want to construct toilets remain unaware of details like the availability of financial incentives from government.
As 2019 inches closer, the pressure to meet targets is only likely to increase. But to achieve these targets, urgent action needs to be taken to make the Swachh Bharat Mission visible to people. First and foremost, the administrative databases must be cleaned up. We cannot set targets and make policy without accurate data. This needs a combination of strategies including independent checks and audits both by government machinery and non-government researchers.
Second, efforts need to be made on a war footing to promote innovative action on the awareness component of the scheme in a way that rewards districts and panchayats that are genuinely creative. Rather than getting Vidya Balan and others to do radio gigs, the country will be better served if Swachhta Doots are appointed and trained. For the moment, most districts are following a common template - a few TV ads, slogans on walls and the threat of punitive measures if households don't build toilets. There are government orders in some districts that threaten to cut of electricity and ration supplies if households don't construct toilets! This is exactly the wrong way of achieving the target of Open Defaction Free villages. In the ultimate analysis, the challenge of achieving and sustaining sanitation in India goes beyond mere toilet construction. It requires a concerted effort to change behavior and deal with complex issues of caste and social organization.
The PM took an important step by making sanitation a political issue but if his government is to achieve its targets, it needs to go beyond the photo-ops to building an implementation system that is visible and creative on the ground.
(Yamini Aiyar and Avani Kapur are with Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research.)
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