India’s tryst with toilets is a complicated relationship

By Maya Rane

“I don’t want to lead a lota party” – fumes Jaya, rubbishing her husband Keshav when he coaxes her to join women folk and socialise as they perform morning ablutions — defecate in open!

Maya Rane

The film, Toilet – Ek Prem Katha, was a relief to a constipated subject of open defecation. Debates in parliament, public protest and media campaigns have already linked open defecating or urinating to be cause of rape, besides other issues related to health, water contamination, solid waste management and so on. Enough funds, attention, time as well as public space is offered by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in effort to swerve this country from being a stinking landfill. Company’s Act in year 2014 opened doles of funds from public and private entities to support development of public private partnerships as part of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

So, what went wrong with this partnership for pots — where does it hurt?

There is no love for pot. With strong social divides, women seek time and opportunity to connect and share their woes while attending to nature’s call. It allows them to make time for themselves, in trust of friends. Their reluctance to use toilet has hurt sanitation programmes.

Taking away their time from socialising has left sanitation campaigns high and dry. There is a need to educate and offer convenience, something that helps them to experience what they want, support the community shift, without force or compulsion.

Deep rooted, far-fetched mindset. Culture and traditions weigh down in form of untouchability, unwritten yet stringent norms for purity and impurity – herculean challenges for introducing a new practice for acceptance of toilet as a daily regimen in hygiene. Assuming that budgets are enough to sail and launch the effort is a fallacy. Touching heart and the sensitivity will be key to change mindsets.

Act on intent. Unlike corporate functions, the CSR and public perception mechanism exert focus on experiential efforts. Opinions are read, but actions are experienced – identify concern to demonstrate certain response that syncs well. It will be necessary to act with sincere intent.

As quantitative and qualitative studies state, people considered using pit latrines as impure and polluting while open defecation, seen as promoting purity and strength, particularly by men in rural areas. Hence, it is imperative to promote cause of health and influence social shift among rural men who control family spends for grooming and sanitation needs.

It’s not my problem. Success of a sanitation or toilet programme is to ensure that toilet is used. The complete chain of supporting agencies and executive offices hence need to focus on the end objective of ‘use’, not ‘build’. Enough sensitizing is needed for working groups to internalize and absorb concerns and shift focus from ‘execution’ to the ‘impact’. Merely completing a task as a ‘job’ by non-stakeholders is a disservice to the cause itself. Lack of collective conscious, lackadaisical execution stem from low motivation levels or lack of respect towards the beneficiary thus damaging both efforts and results.

A still from ‘Toilet Ek Prem Katha’ starring Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar

Latrine built is not equal to latrine used. Focus on behavioural change, familiarizing with health benefits are critical. About 47% of those who defecated in open believed it was pleasant, convenient, comfortable. There is a fair chance that built latrines may go unused. Of those with built latrines, 40 % homes had at least one person continuing to defecate in open, says study conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, a non-profit research institution.

Be grass root, be hands on. Step down into the dung-thatched basti and get involved in activities related to the community which help in identifying with their life. Engaging with community in their culture, religion and crisis, will build faith and trust, and help with an intimate view of their challenges and accomplishments.

Third party audits and verification. Donor and implementing agency need to assess milestones. Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research found that of the 7500 households in a December 2015 study, only 1500 were identifiable. Just one-third of showed ‘achieved sanitation status’, had toilets, and 36% of these homes had new toilets which were unusable, citing complaints such as absence of water, the pit being too small or faulty. Another 40% of the families applied for funds, but never got them. Duplicate entries, ghost beneficiaries and missing households become stumbling blocks. Inability to declare an independent verification of the progress with Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, caused delay of first instalment of USD 1.5 billion from the World Bank and a damp rating of ‘moderately satisfactory’, as per a January 2017 report in The Economic Times.

Information, education and communication.

Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin is targeting behavioural change, with guidelines that need 8% of the funds be allocated for information, education and communication (IEC) activities. This needs to be audited with survey and adapted to suit the needs of the community.

During the 2016-17 financial year, 1% of the total expenditure had been made on IEC up to January 2017, according to Accountability Initiative’s budget brief. In contrast, 98% of the funds had been spent on construction of toilets in individual households, says a report. With the amendment in Company’s Act, India has opened the development sector to lift its sagging state of projects and the journey has yet to begin.

For a country which has touched orbits of Mars and Moon missions with Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan – it has yet to conquer the commode.

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