Union Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ram Kripal Yadav told Parliament on Thursday that 59.43 percent of the people defecating in the open in the world are in India. Yadav, however, said that the numbers have reduced since Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. “As per data submitted by states (and) Union Territories on online Integrated Management Information System, the percentage of rural households defecating in the open was 57.95 percent on October 2, 2014. This has decreased to 50.05 percent on February 19, 2016,” Yadav said. If one were to believe the government, a lot of progress has been made in India’s bid to tackle open defecation. In a column for this newspaper, Rural Development Minister Birender Singh wrote, “15 months since the launch of the mission, more than 14.1 million rural households and around 0.6 million households in the urban areas have gained access to improved sanitation facilities. This gain of additional access has resulted in the rise of sanitation coverage by about 9 percentage points since 2012. Sanitation coverage, which stood at 40.60 percent as per the National Sample Survey Organisation Report of 2012, has increased to around 49.30 percent.” To his credit, he does add a word of caution and states that there is a long way to go before the government can claim any success.
One of the criticisms that the Centre’s faced in its attempts to curb open defecation was that the emphasis on promoting behaviour change had taken a backseat. The emphasis, some argued, was only on the construction of new toilets, instead of how many of them are used by the common citizen. In a stinging critique last year, researchers at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), wrote, “The new sanitation policy now caps the allocation to information, education and communication (IEC), the expenditure head for behaviour change campaign activities, at 8 percent of the total allocation to rural sanitation. These funds have been reduced almost by half”. The implication was that the expenditure on promoting behaviour change per open defecator had been reduced by half. In his column, Birender Singh acknowledges the importance of promoting behaviour change but contends the charge against his government. “The focus of the mission is on behaviour change and sustainability of toilet usage with focus on achieving open defecation free (ODF) communities for holistic health outcomes,” Singh writes. Through advertisement, across both the visual and print medium, has sought to promote behaviour change in toilet usage. But how do you measure the outcomes of such initiatives, where there is little data available on the use of the toilets constructed? Even the Government of India’s recent Annual Economic Survey has argued that income constraints may not be the main determinant of open defecation, indicating that it may be more of a behavioural issue. The document then goes on to specify that the next challenge that the government faces is bringing about behavioural change in rural India to persuade people to start using toilets.
The emphasis on behavioural changes cannot be strengthened any further. One only has to look at the levels of open defecation that take place in the national capital to understand why more expenditure needs to be diverted to promoting behavioural changes. For example, many residents of Delhi would earlier use public toilets maintained by Sulabh International, which would charge Rs 1-2 per use. Despite such low costs, many of Delhi’s citizens found it more convenient to defecate in the open. Therefore, the Centre, in consonance with State governments must up the ante on promoting a change in behaviour.