Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

WHAT MAKES peo­ple change their be­hav­iour? Is it ed­u­ca­tion? Is it the avail­abil­ity of op­tions? Is it so­ci­etal pres­sure? Is it the fear of penal­ties? Or is it all of th­ese and more? This is a zil­lion dol­lar ques­tion for pol­icy-mak­ers try­ing to curb cli­mate change or stop open defe­ca­tion. Take the mat­ter of toi­lets. Get­ting peo­ple to build and use them is turn­ing out to be the big­gest co­nun­drum. Ma­hatma Gandhi had said that san­i­ta­tion is more im­por­tant than in­de­pen­dence. Lack of san­i­ta­tion is lead­ing to avoid­able deaths of in­fants, and un­der­weight and stunted chil­dren. This is un­ac­cept­able.

The good news is that the gov­ern­ment of In­dia has set it­self an am­bi­tious goal to end open defe­ca­tion in the coun­try by Oc­to­ber 2, 2019, Gandhi’s 150th birth an­niver­sary. Af­ter many years of un­suc­cess­ful toi­let-build­ing pro­grammes, the gov­ern­ment has ac­cepted that its goal is not to build toi­lets, but to in­crease their us­age. In other words, peo­ple have to change their be­hav­iour and begin us­ing toi­lets. In fact, the gov­ern­ment now wants to count us­age and not toi­lets in its sur­veys. This is not a small change.

Re­port af­ter re­port has shown that toi­lets are built, but not used. The 2015 re­port of the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral had found that 20 per cent of the toi­lets built un­der gov­ern­ment pro­grammes re­mained locked or were be­ing used as store­rooms. In 2015 again, the Na­tional Sam­ple Sur­vey Of­fice recorded the use of toi­lets in 75,000 house­holds in 75 dis­tricts. The re­sults were stark. In a few states, in­clud­ing Sikkim, Ker­ala and Hi­machal Pradesh, 90-100 per cent of the toi­lets built were in use. But in many states the us­age was low. In eco­nom­i­cally poor Jhark­hand, it was be­low 20 per cent. Even in pro­gres­sive, more lit­er­ate and rel­a­tively rich Tamil Nadu, toi­let us­age was just 39 per cent.

How, then, will us­age in­crease? What will drive the change in be­hav­iour? This is not an idle so­ci­o­log­i­cal ques­tion. It is about the pol­i­tics of de­vel­op­ment.

My col­leagues, who in­ves­ti­gated this, have found that state gov­ern­ments, pushed by the am­bi­tious and much-needed tar­gets set to make In­dia open-defe­ca­tion-free, are us­ing name-and-shame as one way to bring about this change. They are push­ing to­wards mak­ing open defe­ca­tion so­cially un­ac­cept­able. Haryana (a suc­cess­ful state in terms of toi­let us­age), Ut­tar Pradesh (a dis­mal fail­ure), Mad­hya Pradesh, Ch­hat­tis­garh and a few other states have passed bills mak­ing it com­pul­sory for any­one con­test­ing pan­chayat elec­tions to have a func­tional toi­let at home. Many dis­tricts are tak­ing this ap­proach for­ward by blow­ing whis­tles at peo­ple defe­cat­ing in the open, pub­lish­ing their pho­to­graphs in vil­lage bill­boards, can­celling their ra­tion cards or tak­ing away other gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits.

In Ra­jasthan’s Prat­ap­garh dis­trict, this ag­gres­sive drive has had tragic con­se­quences. Women defe­cat­ing in the open were be­ing pho­tographed by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. There was protest and one man died. When my col­leagues vis­ited Me­htab Shah Kachhi Basti— lit­er­ally mean­ing the il­le­gal set­tle­ment—they found that women had lit­tle op­tion but to defe­cate in the open. One, they are poor. Two, they have no real home to call their own; they have no land on which they can build a toi­let. Three, they have no run­ning wa­ter. Even the com­mu­nity toi­let is in­ad­e­quate to cater to the 3,000 peo­ple liv­ing there. Worse, its up­keep is pa­thetic and it has no wa­ter.

But this does not fully ex­plain the habit of open defe­ca­tion. Af­ter all, peo­ple buy mo­bile phones or bi­cy­cles be­fore they in­vest in toi­lets. So, what will cre­ate the de­mand for toi­lets? I be­lieve this issue needs to be dis­cussed openly and much more fu­ri­ously. It is crit­i­cal to in­vest in the soft­ware of be­hav­iour change. This means do­ing a lot more to build aware­ness about the health im­pacts of poor san­i­ta­tion. My own re­search shows that this link is known only in terms of pol­icy; not in terms of ac­tual data, which will build health aware­ness to drive be­havioural change. To­bacco is one case where be­hav­iour has changed. This is be­cause there is no longer any doubt about the ill-ef­fects of to­bacco. We need the same with toi­lets.

To­day, the gov­ern­ment’s Swachh Bharat Mis­sion ac­cepts this and even pro­vides money for what in of­fi­cialese is called in­ten­sive iec (in­for­ma­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion). But its own data shows that in 2016-17, the gov­ern­ment spent 0.8 per cent of its al­lo­ca­tion on iec, against the 8 per cent it had pro­vided in its guide­lines.

It is clear sub­si­dis­ing toi­let con­struc­tion is not enough. Much more needs to be done in terms of in­cen­tives that make peo­ple change their be­hav­iour. In places like Me­htab Shah Kachhi Basti, the gov­ern­ment will have to pro­vide op­tions for af­ford­able com­mu­nity toi­lets that are clean and well-main­tained. This also means recog­nis­ing the cru­cial con­nec­tion between wa­ter and toi­lets.

How­ever, we still need de­ter­rence. There is no doubt that so­ci­etal pres­sure works. But we have to make sure that we do not end up blam­ing or sham­ing the vic­tim. Stig­ma­tis­ing the pow­er­less is not the way to a cleaner In­dia, but only a more ashamed In­dia.

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