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Swachh Bharat: why Modi's toilet trouble won't end anytime soon

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on: 3 December 2015, 11:35 IST

The mission

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on 2 October last year.
  • The aim: construct 11 crore toilets in five years and eliminate open defecation.
  • Over six months later, the scheme is yet to take off - despite the hype.

The obstacles

  • Finance ministry hasn\'t set aside enough funds. Only Rs 2,625 crore allocated against the requested Rs 12,500 crore for this year.
  • Sanitation schemes from 1986 haven\'t achieved results, due to poor design.
  • Constructing toilets isn\'t enough, mindsets need to change.
  • Confusion between Centre-state responsibilities have not been sorted.

The remedy

  • The government needs to put in greater resources behind the Abhiyan.
  • Eliminating open defecations needs over Rs 1.3 lakh crore by 2019.
  • The government needs to understand a little bit of human psychology while devising strategies.

Six months after its launch on 2 October 2014, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has hit a snag. Apart from inadequate funding, the ambitious nationwide cleanliness drive has yet to take off for want of clarity on rules and roles for implementing agencies.

Where are the funds?

While funds to build over 11 crore toilets across India in the next five years have yet to be sourced and earmarked, confusion over centre-state responsibilities and sharing of costs has left toilet construction in the lurch.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even the allocated Rs 2,850 crore was under-utilised by the states during the previous year. This has led to a reduction in the budgetary allocation for the current year.

Clearly, the Finance Ministry didn't have enough confidence in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation's ability to construct the required number of toilets this year. As a result, only Rs 2,625 crore was allocated against the requested Rs 12,500 crore for the year 2015-16.

India will need no less than Rs 1,33,000 crore over the next five years to eliminate the scourge of open defecation.

Of course, the fact that a Swachh Bharat cess on the lines of the education cess, will be levied, means that there will be more funds in hand for toilet construction.

The emphasis on numbers, however, is worrisome because that is not what the ambitious program was designed for in the first place.

It was instead based on the premise that changing peoples' attitude towards using toilets should precede actual toilet construction. So, the task has been to bring about a behavioural change among the 65 crore people who relieve themselves under the open sky every day.

Why did earlier schemes fail?

There were hopes that Swachh Bharat would be an ambitious new beginning rather than a rehash of earlier schemes. Sadly, this has not been the case.

The erstwhile Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) and its rechristened avatar the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), launched in 1986 and 1999 respectively, were aimed at transforming the sanitation landscape of the country. Both the programmes failed to achieve their goals.

India will need Rs 1,33,000 crore over the next 5 years to eliminate the scourge of open defecation

Consequently, TSC was revamped as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in 2012 by giving a booster dose to mass awareness through enhanced budgetary allocations.

Expectedly, the concerned government departments which have only been setting annual targets on toilet coverage and missing it all these years, could not shift gears to go on a sanitation preaching mission. For obvious reasons, NBA didn't quite work out.

Eliminating open defecation is undoubtedly good politics, but for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to succeed over its predecessors, the government would need more than just pulling the levers of many departments to work together.

Is constructing toilets enough?

When it comes to the subtle question of behaviour change, a centralised approach can hardly be expected to work. Government departments are neither trained nor capable of engineering shifts in social behaviour. Therefore, it isn't surprising that the allocation towards bringing about behavioural change through mass awareness has gone down.


Since the implementation machinery of the government could utilise just about half of the allocated funds in the past, the mission has been allotted only 5% of the budget (against the previous 15%) towards behavioural change processes. The government doesn't realise that this approach won't work.

The trouble with playing the numbers game alone is that there is a danger of building poor quality toilets that nobody uses.

A study of over 3,200 rural households in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan shows that in about 45% of the households with toilets, at least one person still defecates in the open.

Why do people like doing it in the open?

It may seem a case of 'old habits die hard' but the reality is that a dingy toilet with insufficient lighting is cause enough for people to seek solace out in the open. According to writer VS Naipaul, defecating in the open was an escape from the fear of claustrophobia in a closet.

Many of those who opt to go out in the open do so because the sensory faculties of humans miss out on the need for engagement of some kind in the isolation of a toilet.

The question that begs an answer is: why is a toilet not a priority for millions of households? Is decision-making conditioned by the cognitive limitations of the human mind?

Even though it is difficult, the government will need to understand a little bit of human psychology while devising strategies to eliminate open defecation. It would need to provide context-specific architecture for people as there is a subtle distinction between a toilet and the idea of a toilet.

It is a pity that the largely absent toilet has been made the centre-point of the ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, instead of working towards building an overall hygienic environment.

The choice of toilet designs, decentralised solid and liquid waste management, and an adequate trained manpower to execute the plans have yet to be put in place.

The challenge is not only constructing over 11 crore toilets by 2019 but also to ensuring that these are put to use. It is a daunting task and policy-makers need to engage with behavioural change experts to create conditions that make open defecators think.

The government may have caught the attention of the masses but it is yet to deploy resources where they matter. And, five years do not offer the luxury of time in changing the dirty picture.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 3 December 2015, 11:35 IST
Sudhirendar Sharma @CatchNews

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a development critic and a commentator on environmental issues.