Modi's total sanitation plan needs change of mindset

Modi's total sanitation plan needs change of mindset

Realising that changing peoples’ attitude towards using toilets should precede actual toilet construction, the widely held myth that lack of sanitation is a problem of access has seemingly been given a short kick.

Will this change in tactic kick-start a new beginning for the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) for putting an end to the national scourge? Hope has risen on the assumption that the ambitious new beginning will not be the proverbial old wine in a new bottle.
There are reasons for being circumspect though. Did not the Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) which started in 1986 and its rechristened avatar the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) launched in 1999, had the primary objective of transforming the sanitation landscape of the country? Initiated in 2012, NBA. which is but a revamped TSC, is now slated to stress on toilet adoption and usage over toilet construction by giving a booster dose to mass awareness through enhanced budgetary allocations.

Taking behavioural change message across to some 650 million people, out of an estimated 1.2 billion, who relieve themselves under the open sky is undoubtedly Herculean. Could the concerned government departments which have only been setting annual targets on toilet coverage and missing it all these years shift gears to go on a sanitation preaching mission? Need it be said that manpower in the government is inherently ill-trained to engineer shifts in social behaviour. 

Since the Narendra Modi government has taken it head-on to address the shocking disgrace in our society, an element of guarded optimism has emerged amidst stinking despair. Beyond the stress on behavioural change as the guiding dictum for improving the sanitation scenario, one doesn't get to read much about how a rather fast growing economy can help reduce abject human deprivation in an estimated 130 million households in the countryside.

Had it only been the case of providing toilets to the deprived households, the budgetary allocation could have easily taken care of it. During last 15 years since the programme on rural sanitation went through three iterations, little over Rs 12,000 crore have been spent for providing toilets in rural areas. By government's own admission, far from improving the sanitation conditions in the countryside it has indeed contributed to increasing the number of open defecators during the last decade. 

Limitations in toilet construction drive notwithstanding, attitude of people to avoid the use of toilets has been identified as another significant reason for less-than-adequate performance of the programme. Experts wonder if plugging leakage in the implementation machinery alongside the ambitious aim of transforming peoples’ attitude towards toilet use alone can free the countryside from the scourge of open defecation.The apprehension is not without reason, though.    

Land over toilets

Though it has yet to get a mention in the ongoing sanitation discourse, the fact remains that a large number of rural families are not only homeless but landless too. According to National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data for 2003-04, some 31 per cent of rural families are landless and another 30 per cent own on an average mere 215 sq. ft piece of land. For the landless and near landless families, securing rights over land assumes priority over a toilet and rightfully so!    

In the states that have performed better on sanitation front, in addition to social and economic factors the land ownership pattern of the rural households has contributed significantly in generating demand for toilets and its early adoption.

Unless the landless are allotted ten cent land (4,360 sq ft plot), neither poverty nor open sanitation scenario in rural areas will show much change. While ten cents of land could be a fortune in urban areas, it has the potential to transform rural life in more ways than one.

Since the prime minister enjoys a reputation for getting things done, it will serve the cause better if the National Right to Homestead Bill, drafted by the previous government, gets the legislative approval for granting 10 cent land to each landless and near landless rural family for removing the ambiguity regarding land ownership prevailing across states. Without implementing land reforms, sanitation disgrace may not be history anytime soon.
Add urban migration to the crises and another challenge emerges on the sanitation horizon. According to NSSO data for 2007-08, some 12.5 million rural and 1 million urban population could be classified as short-term migrants.

By adding the number of child workers, the number swell to some 100 million short-term migrants in the country. Another survey presents a different picture, 28.5 per cent (some 325 million people) countrymen and women are consistently moving, adding to the army of open-defecators in urban areas. 

Whatever be the final count, rural to urban migration is a grim reality. The trouble is that even if back in his village the migrant has access to a toilet, there is no such facility for the migrant population at the destination.

Regretfully, railway tracks have served their cause well all across the country. And, rarely the floating population gets counted in the dismal sanitation scenario in the urban areas. Without creating additional public toilets in urban areas, improving rural sanitation will only partially transform the dirty picture.
(The writer is a researcher on water and sanitation issues)

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