Swachh Bharat is unstoppable and no more a sarkari plan, says Parameswaran Iyer
Union secretary Parameswaran Iyer with Amitabh Sinha of The Indian Express.
Parameswaran Iyer: The Swachh Bharat Mission has been underway for a couple of years and in this period, the
sanitation coverage has gone up from 42% to 64%. We are very conscious of the fact that it (Swachh Bharat) is a ‘behaviour change movement’. The Prime Minister keeps talking about the mission turning into a janandolan (people’s movement).
I think it has captured the imagination of the country.
All state governments are on board. States such as Jammu and Kashmir are at the lower end, whereas states such as Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala have achieved more than the desired results. Over two lakh villages have become Open Defecation Free (ODF) and this movement needs to be sustained. It is not just about achieving the status and then forgetting about it; we need to create mechanisms at the village level for solid and liquid waste management.
There are a lot of things being done for awareness and education. We have launched a campaign from Mumbai called ‘Darwaza Band’ which is basically to ‘shut the door during defecation’ and is focussed on both men and women. Amitabh Bachchan and Anushka Sharma, our brand ambassadors, are participating in this campaign. Then, at the grassroots level, we have ‘Swachhagrahis’ — trained motivators who go out and educate communities about the importance of behavioural changes.
Amitabhi Sinha: Earlier too, similar programmes have been initiated by state governments and the Centre. What is qualitatively different this time?
This is the first time in India that a Prime Minister has taken sanitation out of the closet and put it squarely on the national agenda. It has been a game changer. We have moved from output to outcome. In the previous programmes — whether it was the Centre’s sanitation programmes of the ’80s, or the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan — the focus was more on construction of toilets and the approach was more target-driven. Things such as sustaining ODF status was not emphasised upon, there was no focus on solid and liquid waste management. It is all being looked into now.
What is a clean village? It has got to be ODF, it has got to have solid waste management, and it has got to be visually clean. I think that the overall emphasis (of sanitation programmes) should be on bringing about a change in people’s behaviour at all levels.
Amitabh Sinha: You have seen sanitation programmes being run in other parts of the world during your World Bank tenure. Have other countries gone through the same curve as us?
A number of UN countries have committed themselves to giving full water and sanitation access to its people by 2030. Swachh Bharat has significantly brought down the numbers of those defecating in the open. Countries such as Bangladesh, for example, had very low coverage about 15 years ago. They put in a lot of energy and commitment into improving the situation. They focused on communication and bringing about a behavioural change. Today, Bangladesh has got open defecation almost out of its way.
Then there are countries in Africa, such as Ethiopia, who have made it their mission to end open defecation. Indonesia is making it a big focus. India is well up there with all these countries.
Shailaja Bajpai: How much of the open defecation issue is a behavioural problem and how much of it is about access and water?
It is both. Behavioural change is very important. These are habits that have been entrenched in people for centuries. People have been going out in the open for a number of reasons, including lack of water. Water and sanitation go together.
To ensure that a village is ODF, we need water. So, we are focusing on providing piped water supply to ODF villages — it was announced by the Finance Minister in his Budget speech. Also, during our sanitation drives, we have been encouraging the use of ‘steep slope rural toilet pans’ in rural areas. It is essentially a toilet bowl with a steep slope, and requires less water to flush. You need a litre-and-a-half for a rural pan, compared to the four or five litres used in an urban pan. It is all a work in progress.
Shalini Nair: One of the goals of the Swachh Bharat Mission is to eradicate manual scavenging. But two-and-a-half years into the drive, and we haven’t even documented the number of manual scavengers across the country. You just need to go anywhere in rural India to see that the practice is widely prevalent.
Manual scavenging as a concept is handled by the Ministry of Social Welfare, but it has a direct link to sanitation. For us, it is about converting insanitary toilets to sanitary toilets, and that is what we are focusing on in rural areas. According to surveys carried out by state governments in 2013-14, this conversion is progressing at high speed. Wherever there are cases of manual scavenging, the physical handling of human excreta, it is being reported to the state governments and to us, and then we ask for immediate action to be taken.
Shalini Nair: Bikaner in Rajasthan was one of the first districts to be declared ODF. But while reporting from the region, we found several cases where toilets were constructed without pits. The Rs 12,000 that is given is not sufficient to construct toilets. We also found cases where the entire gram panchayat did not have toilets but things were hushed up to get ODF tag. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he does not want the quality of this process to be affected by quantity. We want to make sure that the process is good. If there are toilets being constructed without pits, it is a problem and needs to be fixed. We are trying to encourage the twin-pit technology which is a complete treatment plant in itself. As far as cost of the toilet is concerned, it varies.
One can build a simple twin-pit toilet for anything between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000. It is also important to remember that the amount given by the government, which is Rs 12,000, is not the cost of the toilet. It is only an incentive. So in Punjab, for example, people are putting in their own funds and building facilities.
Amitabh Sinha: How do you ensure that the district administration and local bodies do not inflate numbers in their eagerness to achieve targets? Can you take us through the process involved in declaring a village ODF?
We have Swachh Bharat guidelines for verification that are quite broad. Our country is very vast and one size does not fit all. When a village is set to become ODF or is gearing up to make such an announcement, there is an open gram panchayat meeting and everyone present agrees that village is ODF. This ensures transparency. After this, there is a block-level checking, which could then be followed by a district-level check. In some places, state-level officials also conduct checks.
In Gujarat, the process is even more rigorous. They are hiring a third party to conduct state-level checks. Other states too will follow this process soon. Within three months of the ODF ‘self declaration’ by a village, there is a formal verification process. Then a second verification has to be done within six months of the self-declaration.
Apart from the verification measures taken by the state, we also send out national-level monitors. We are planning to commission an independent verification agency who will go out on an annual basis and carry out a third-party survey at the household level.
Then, we need to sustain the ODF plan. Under the World Bank project, there will be a financial incentive for this. States are also creating their own mechanisms. Haryana is announcing incentives to blocks for remaining ODF.
Amitabh Sinha: Have you found instances where villages that were declared ODF have slipped back? What do you do in such situations?
There have been instances. When a case comes to our notice, we immediately report it to the state government and they fix it.
Unni Rajen Shanker: Once a state achieves complete ODF status, what is its next target?
While one of the primary objectives of the Swachh Bharat Mission is to rid rural India of open defecation, it is not enough. Effective solid and liquid waste management is very important and there should also be ‘visual’ cleanliness. We have developed the ‘Village Swachhta Index’, under which we take three or four Swachhta parameters at the village or gram panchayat level and then ensure that it is being executed and sustained.
ODF is one parameter. Then we see if there is any waste around households, public places in a gram panchayat — schools, clinics etc. We also check for stagnant water, which is a simple indicator of the lack of drainage. We are now working to strengthen these four parameters. Solid and liquid waste management also requires more funds and infrastructure. To ensure that, we are trying to integrate with other ongoing programmes such as MGNREGA.
Tamil Nadu has a very good solid waste management model which is being executed through self-help groups. They have converged 14th Finance Commission, State Finance Commission, MGNREGA and the Swachh Bharat funds.
Unni Rajen Shanker: In cities, there are systems to ensure that waste is collected from homes and sent to the landfill. However, in smaller towns and rural India, there is no such network and waste collection is still a big problem in these parts.
We have several blueprints on solid and liquid waste management at the village-level and now we are putting them all together to come up with a plan. We are convening a meeting on the subject with 130 district magistrates in Mussoorie.
At a decentralised level, yes, there is no sanitation network. There are no densely populated clusters or apartment buildings and so we need a different model in these places. Also, like the PM has been emphasising, we need to develop a revenue model from waste. We need local operators — and many states are doing it.
There are two parts here: solid waste and liquid waste. If you look at solid waste, it consists of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Most of the waste generated in rural areas is biodegradable and we promote decentralised solutions such as composting and biogas plants in these parts. Liquid waste is a little more technical; they are of two-three kinds. There is ‘black water’, which is essentially toilet water. In rural areas, black water is taken care of by twin-pit toilets, which is a treatment plant in itself. Then there is ‘grey water’ — this can be kitchen waste, water used for bathing and also the storm water from rain. We have to find ways to disaggregate different kinds of water and different kinds of waste. We are looking at different models for solid and liquid waste management in the rural areas.
Amrith Lal: How much of an issue is caste in deciding behavioural patterns when it comes to sanitation?
I think this programme (Swachh Bharat) has transcended the caste thing. I think in villages now, there is a sense of commonality. Having said that, emptying a pit is still an issue. It is also one of the reasons we are trying to promote the twin-pit technology. We are getting iconic people, Bollywood actors and other people of influence to empty pits so that people understand that this is something which everyone should do.
One of the barriers to building a twin pit, research has shown, is that many people think the pit is going to fill up very quickly and then who is going to empty it. In more urban areas, a vacuum truck could do the job. In rural areas, it’s a little more difficult for trucks to make their way through narrow lanes. So now we are trying to convince people of the fact that the twin-pit technology is safe and reliable and that emptying of the pit is not a taboo. Once you close a pit and wait for about a year, you can actually just take out the contents with your hand. It looks like coffee powder, is odour-free and a very good compost.
Amrith Lal: But can technological solutions overcome entrenched social beliefs?
Technology is only one part of it, we also need a community movement. In Swachh Bharat campaign, we use a term called ‘triggering’, where the team on the ground tries to trigger behavioural changes to overcome barriers to building and using toilets. It’s a very interesting process where the entire village community comes together — it’s ‘Participatory Rural Appraisal’ (PRA). The guru of PRA, Robert Chambers, is working with us. It was his idea that we empty a pit.
(During the PRA exercise) In a village, the entire community comes together — all sections, all castes. They draw up a map of the village, identifying the spots where people defecate in the open. Everyone acknowledges it. It is a process where people are compelled to come out and confront the fact that they are defecating in the open, along with issues such as why are the children falling ill, how is it that half the village has toilets and the other half doesn’t. This creates a kind of self-awareness and bonding within the community. It is a social process and addresses the problems.
Vishnu Varma: Is the government looking at providing some kind of an incentive or a reward for those who are performing well under the campaign?
I fully endorse the incentive approach. We have a programme under the World Bank project where a village which continues to remain ODF will get extra funds from the state government. It will be implemented in the next few months. Incentives are very important, whether in cash or in other forms. Many state governments are offering a cash incentive to the ‘Swachhagrahis’ who motivate people. For every ODF village, they are given an incentive amount.
Also, there are many ordinary citizens, particularly the youth, who want to contribute (without any incentive). In Chhattisgarh last year, over a lakh schoolchildren wrote letters to their parents, saying that they need toilets at home. So it is the movement that is important. But, yes, incentives are equally significant.
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Srijana Mitra Das: Along with the optimism, you must also run into a great deal of pessimism about the programme. How do you counter it?
The Prime Minister is the motivator-in-chief. He talks about Swachh Bharat in almost every Mann ki Baat address. He has done a lot to motivate people and counter the cynicism around Swachh Bharat. In my visits around the country, I have come across more optimism than pessimism.
I think (the campaign) is unstoppable now. We need to work with states which have more challenges — UP, Bihar, Odisha. Together, these three states account for 55% of the sanitation issues in India. We need to focus more on some states than the others. States such as Gujarat, Haryana and Uttarakhand have above 80-90% coverage. Our job is to work with more states, provide more technical assistance to states which need it… This is no longer a sarkari (government) programme. It has already penetrated quite deep into the country and needs to go further.