La­belling ver­sus out­comes

Stud­ies on the Swachh Bharat Mis­sion don’t con­firm the gov­ern­ment’s claims

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL - Nikhil sri­vas­tav

On Oc­to­ber 2, 2017, the Swachh Bharat Mis­sion (SBM) com­pleted its third year. Over ₹60,000 crore has been spent on the pro­gramme, but de­spite its scope and im­por­tance, there is very lit­tle ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence about its per­for­mance

So far the num­bers that have been widely cited by the gov­ern­ment are from its own ad­min­is­tra­tive data and the Swachh Survek­shan Gramin 2017, con­ducted by the Qual­ity Coun­cil of In­dia (QCI), a body set up jointly by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia and in­dus­try. Both the sources, i.e. QCI’s sur­vey and the SBM web­site, por­tray a sim­i­lar pic­ture. At the time when the sur­vey was con­ducted be­tween May and June 2017, Swachh Survek­shan claimed 62.45% In­dia-wide la­trine cov­er­age, which was sim­i­lar to the SBM’s fig­ure of 63.73%. More­over, the QCI sur­vey also claimed that 91.29% of those with ac­cess to a toi­let use it.

If true, these num­bers would mean bet­ter pub­lic health out­comes in In­dia — a very de­sir­able out­come. How­ever, one can de­bate their ac­cu­racy. Re­searchers who study san­i­ta­tion agree that the ques­tion­naire is struc­tured to show the ap­pear­ance of la­trine use. In fact, re­search shows that sur­veys which pose a bal­anced ques­tion about open defe­ca­tion or la­trine use for each per­son in a house­hold are able to doc­u­ment more open defe­ca­tion than sur­vey ques­tions that group house­hold mem­bers by de­mo­graphic cat­e­gories.

Off the mark

In­ac­cu­rate es­ti­mate of la­trine use is not the only prob­lem the SBM faces; a va­ri­ety of im­ple­men­ta­tion chal­lenges ex­ist as well. The pres­sure of an ap­proach­ing dead­line of mak­ing In­dia open defe­ca­tion free (ODF) is one.

Dur­ing my re­cent visit to a few vil­lages in Ut­tar Pradesh to study the pro­gramme, a vil­lage prad­han de­scribed the pres­sure of build­ing la­trines: “Last year I was given the tar­get of build­ing 27 la­trines, which I have got con­structed, and now the tar­get for this year is to build 104. Af­ter these are con­structed, my vil­lage will be de­clared open defe­ca­tion free.” He did not men­tion that be­ing de­clared ODF would de­pend on any­one us­ing the con­structed la­trines. More­over, he said that the cri­te­rion would in­clude de­crepit and un­used struc­tures con­structed un­der Nir­mal Bharat Abhiyan, the United Progressive Al­liance gov­ern­ment’s la­trine build­ing pro­gramme. SBM counts these as func­tional la­trines, as the base­line data in 2012 did. In fact, pic­tures of such de­funct la­trines can be seen on the SBM web­site cat­e­gorised as “up­loaded”, “ap­proved” and “counted”.

The prad­han’s ex­pe­ri­ence is in line with find­ings by san­i­ta­tion re­searchers in in­de­pen­dent stud­ies. In a re­port called “Qual­ity and Sus­tain­abil­ity of Toi­lets” (WaterAid, 2017), the au­thors re­port that in the eight States where the study was con­ducted, less than a quar­ter of house­holds said that it was their own ini­tia­tive to build the toi­let. This is con­trary to the gov­ern­ment’s claim that SBM is a peo­ple’s move­ment.

In an­other study, “Swachh Bharat Mis­sion (Gramin) Im­mer­sive Re­search,” con­ducted by Praxis, the In­sti­tute of De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies (IDS), and WaterAid, re­searchers lived with fam­i­lies in each of the eight ODF vil­lages se­lected. They aimed to ex­plore be­havioural change best prac­tices in ru­ral dis­tricts that have been de­clared ODF in Mad­hya Pradesh, Ra­jasthan and Ut­tar Pradesh.

Al­though each of these vil­lages had been de­clared ODF and the au­thor­i­ties ver­i­fied them to be ODF, the ‘Im­mer­sive’ study found that of the eight ver­i­fied ODF vil­lages, only one was ac­tu­ally ODF, one was close to be­ing ODF, and the rest had remarks such as “some OD ob­served,” “OD ar­eas iden­ti­fied,” and “OD preva­lent.” The two “ODF ver­i­fied vil­lages” in Ut­tar Pradesh had 37% and 74%, re­spec­tively, of house­holds with­out a toi­let in their house. An “ODF ver­i­fied” vil­lage in Ra­jasthan had a toi­let cov­er­age of just 16%.

False ODF claims were not the only dis­con­cert­ing ob­ser­va­tions that the re­searchers made. In all the vil­lages, the study found co­er­cive mea­sures hav­ing been used to pro­mote the SBM. The au­thors say: “Pan­chay­ats have been mak­ing threats, though sel­dom im­posed, with a va­ri­ety of sanc­tions and pun­ish­ments, rang­ing from de­nial of all State wel­fare schemes (for in­stance with­drawal of ra­tion cards) to im­pos­ing of fines… and ar­rest and pros­e­cu­tion un­der var­i­ous sec­tions of [the] In­dian Pe­nal Code.”

Un­for­tu­nately, we do not have cred­i­ble, rep­re­sen­ta­tive coun­try­wide es­ti­mates of la­trine use in In­dia. On one hand, gov­ern­ment data and the Swachh Survek­shan show the pro­gramme to be achiev­ing what it is meant to achieve. But, in­de­pen­dent, rapid stud­ies by san­i­ta­tion re­searchers and anec­do­tal sto­ries present a less rosy pic­ture. The pro­grame seems to be run­ning on a check mark-based ap­proach, and be­tween all this, wide­spread open defe­ca­tion in In­dia con­tin­ues to kill ba­bies, and stunts those who sur­vive.

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