Sanitation policy needs holistic, people-led approach

Sanitation policy needs holistic, people-led approach

Toilets are finally on the national agenda. The reference to the practice of open defecation and the need to end it in the Independence Day speech of the Prime Minister was aimed at galvanising people as well as the administration into action.

A couple of corporate houses have responded by pledging funds for construction of toilets for girls in schools, as part of their corporate social responsibility. The last time sanitation figured in public discourse in a big way was in 2012 when Jairam Ramesh as minister for rural development made a provocative statement that ‘toilets are more important than temples’.


It is surprising that India did not have a national programme to address lack of toilets in villages as well as urban areas till mid-1980s. The first structured effort to solve sanitation problem in rural areas was launched only in 1986 in the form of Central Rural Sanitation Programme, but it was limited in scope and achieved very little.

In 1999, the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was launched with a clear objective of ending the practice of open defecation by 2010. It focused on construction of toilets for individual households, schools, anganwadis and toilet complex for community.

Sanitation programme was based on the concept of creating demand for toilets and involving communities in their construction. Solid and liquid waste management was added as a separate component only in 2006.

TSC was merged with an umbrella programme called Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan that shifted the target year for achieving total sanitation from 2010 to 2017. Now the NDA government wants to call the same programme ‘Swach Bharat’, retaining the target date of 2017. In a way, the announcement from the Red Fort is reiteration of the existing programme – a case of new label for old wine.

Sanitation - safe disposal of human waste- is a complex issue. It is not just about constructing toilets in villages.  It is closely linked with water supply, sewerage system, waste treatment, and above all, local cultural and social contexts. It has much to do with health and disease.

The West could solve its sanitation problem in the 19th century because it had a direct bearing on spread of diseases. Since no powerful drugs such as antibiotics were available to treat infections, hygiene was the only preventive and curative weapon available.

In the 20st century era when cheap antibiotics are available to fight infections, sanitation went down in public health priorities.  Still, sanitation and hygiene are most potent weapons against disease and malnutrition for impoverished Indians. The prevalence of insanitation is also linked with level of education and is a major cause of water pollution and environmental degradation.


Subsidies no help

The direction sanitation programme will take now onwards is critical for its success. Merely focusing on provision of subsidies for construction of toilets will not help. So will be the case with new toilet technologies being touted by international organisations and high-profile donor agencies.

We need a holistic, people-led approach to sanitation and need to implement it in a manner that makes sanitation sustainable. Centrally imposed solutions are bound to fail.  In this regard, it will be prudent to examine the impact of TSC in the past decade before moving forward.

While progress has been made in terms of number of toilets constructed and access to them in schools and anganwadis, some discomforting trends have also emerged. An evaluation of TSC by Programme Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission in 2013 found that toilets are not being used by all family members in spite of the availability.

While the government is yet to spell out details of how it wishes to achieve with the goal of total sanitation, there is considerable enthusiasm in the corporate sector which sees the programme as a boost to the construction industry.

An industry chamber representative has even said that the sanitation programme could provide much needed stimulus to the economy as it would inject billions of rupees in construction and sanitary equipment related businesses. Fancy toilet designs are also doing the rounds. Such an approach would be disastrous, as time and again it has been proved that mere creation of sanitation infrastructure and subsidies do not lead to use of toilets.

Sanitation drive will have to be community-led and demand-led, and not supply-led as it has been so far. Toilets will have to be maintained by communities through various models such as self help groups, sanitation committees or by local entrepreneurs.

We also need to develop innovative toilet technologies that could help reduce need for water, facilitate on-site but safe treatment which can be handled with minimum electricity or with the use of renewable sources of energy.

High-end technologies that promise zero-waste may not work in India because they call for too much user involvement in their operation. Some experts also feel that flush toilets are most acceptable even among rural people, so it would be difficult to motivate them to settle down for other options.

In such a situation, it may be necessary to develop toilets in which its frontend remains unchanged while it reduces water use and facilitates onsite treatment. The key is not to ignore cultural and social context of sanitation. Behaviours and mindsets don’t change overnight. Along with construction of toilets, we will have to pay greater attention to motivate people to use toilets, which in turn, can create demand for toilets.

(The writer is a science journalist and author based in New Delhi)

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