Despite the construction of toilets, the practice of open defecation continues to loom large
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) organised a meeting on the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) on March 1, 2018, at the India Habitat Centre. The meeting, a third part of the dialogue series of SBM(G), aimed to discuss the progress of SBM since its launch in 2014. Public policy researchers, development partners and implementers in the field of SBM were invited to the meeting. This is not the first time that the ministry had gathered the stakeholders to discuss the progress of the mission. The October 2019 deadline for making India clean is approaching fast. In this meeting, the ministry wanted to discuss more on the solid-liquid waste management and the sustainability of sanitation in the villages.
The meeting started with a presentation by Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, Drinking Water and Sanitation. There's no doubt that the data shown by the ministry on household coverage is very impressive. The coverage almost increased by 40 per cent (as on date) from a mere 38.70 per cent in October 2014, when the mission was launched. The map provided by the ministry showed that there is no such state where household toilet coverage is less than 30 per cent. Four states namely, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Odisha showed household coverage of less than 60 per cent whereas, all other states have a coverage of more than 60 per cent. Data, undoubtedly, talks about the high rate of construction of toilets.
NC Saxena, former secretary with the Union Ministry of Rural Development, pointed out that usage is still a problem in SBM. Saxena, who started the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999, entirely abolished subsidy for the non-BPL population and reduced it for the BPL from Rs 3,000 to only Rs 500, but vastly increased funds for communication and extension. He added that the reduction of subsidy was not liked by many. He questioned how a state like Chhattisgarh can be declared open-defecation free, when the use of toilets, as per reports, is not 100 per cent.
The mission director, SBM, Maharashtra opined that the usage of toilets can be managed in a different way. According to him, people must first be put to the habit of using toilets, even if the design is faulty, and then once it is done, people will automatically rectify the problems with their own money. Our experiences in the laggard states of Bihar and Odisha (in 2017), which are two of the bottom states, show that faulty designs of the toilets have actually de-motivated people to use toilets. Toilets in these areas have been used for the storage of grains or as cattle shed.
It could be well seen that the ministry is still struggling with awareness and education programmes to motivate the usage of toilets. The secretary, Drinking Water and Sanitation, requested for more ideas from the stakeholders on information, education and communication. He also added that the states now receive money on Open Defecation Free-Sustainability. But the question still remains on how to judge sustainability. Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, for example, re-verified sustainability of the ODF status of a village 15 days after the declaration of the village as ODF. But, the question still remains with the expert whether 15 days is a good enough time period to check if the village has slipped back from its ODF status.
Balamurugan D, CEO and state mission director of the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (JEEVIKA), says that dysfunctional toilets happen when the toilets are constructed by the mukhya or the contractors. The beneficiaries need to be involved in the process of the construction of toilets. For this, the state has trained almost 37,000 masons last year. The beneficiaries, according to Balamurugan, construct toilets with the help of the Self Help Groups in Bihar. According to the data provided by MDWS, the number of toilets constructed in 2016-17 is double from that of 2015-16 and in 2017-18, the number of toilets constructed was almost four times that of 2015-16. But in June 2017, when the researchers from Centre for Science and Environment visited villages near Ganga, it was seen that the usage of toilets was very low. Swachhagrahis, who act as motivators for the construction and usage of toilets in the states, are underutilised and some states show a long list of vacancies for the post of Swachhagrahis, according to a few participants in the meeting. In Jharkhand, only 12 per cent of the Swachhagrahis receive their salary.
Although it is true that MDWS is still struggling with the usage of toilets, yet its initiative to manage liquid waste from toilets is laudable. MDWS wants to promote dual pit system for the toilets in a big way – the argument being that it is economical and easy to construct. There was an agreement among the participants that there is a need for the modification of designs in areas of hard rock or shallow groundwater. There are many villages which are opting for single pit toilets that are not recommended by sanitation experts. Telangana has taken an appreciable step towards the construction of single pit toilets – the state does not provide any incentive to beneficiaries if the single pit is constructed. The mission is also looking in a great way into community toilets and is also planning Faecal Sludge Management, concluded WASH Chief Nicolas Osbert, United Nations Children's Fund. MDWS also needs to focus equally on huge volume of grey water generated in the villages – otherwise, the exercise to make the villages completely clean will be futile.
(The author is Program Manager, Water Programme. The views expressed are strictly personal.)