On June 31, the Union ministry for drinking water and sanitation invited a batch of district collectors from various states to instil in them the importance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The collectors were told the massive outreach programme was not only about the construction of toilets but also about changing the behaviour of communities.
The collectors were told about the success stories of districts such as Bikaner in Rajasthan, Nadia in West Bengal and Angul in Odisha. These have performed exceptionally well under SBM. Non-profit organisations triggered the need for toilets and explained the perils of open defecation. The collectors in Bikaner, Nadia and Angul encouraged communities to collectively build toilets for whole villages and gram panchayats. The collectors attending the workshop were told that within the given budget and rules, it was indeed plausible to scale up the construction of toilets and motivate people in a short span of time.
"The success of SBM depends on the district administration and, more specifically, the district collector," said a top-ranking officer, who organised the two-day workshop and trained the collectors.
"How many collectors have become open defecation free (ODF) champions after the workshop is like asking how many good men there are in society, some were converted and some will get converted when faced with the success stories of peers," the officer added.
Officials say this is the first time the Union government is resorting to such measures to achieve Prime Minister Modi's most ambitious target, of making the entire country ODF by October 2, 2019. In the past, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had made a similar attempt and registered some success. The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dispensation has changed the previous programme by delinking it from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employ-ment Guarantee Scheme.
It also made compulsory to geographically tag the pictures of newly-constructed toilets and upload these on its portal to verify the number of actual toilets. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) has been asked to conduct a third-party review.
Modi is likely to present the NSSO report on the first anniversary of SBM on October 2. The government claims it has already crossed the current target (between October 2, 2014 and October 2, 2015) of constructing six million toilets. Its next-year target is to build 10.2 million latrines.
But to make the whole country ODF, the government has to construct nearly 100 million toilets for 597 million people (according to a joint study by WHO and UNICEF in 2014) who still defecate in the open. The target seems impractical as Union and state governments would have to spend an eye-popping Rs 1.2 lakh crore in the next five years. Currently, the Union government contributes Rs 9,000 and the state governments Rs 3,000 towards construction of one toilet.
"Money has never been an issue. We were given Rs 2,600 crore in full, which is rare in the government of India. The finance minister has assured us of adequate funds for next year," says Sarswati Prasad, a joint secretary in the ministry.
Of the Rs 2,600 crore, states have spent Rs 1,400 crore. They have a surplus of Rs 2,097 crore from the previous budget.
Among states, West Bengal has been performing better in numbers of new toilets and the money spent. In April, Nadia was declared the first ODF district in the state but the work had begun before the Modi government took office in May 2014. Officials cite active involvement of state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee behind the success of SBM and three ODF districts in the state.
Other states which performed better in the past financial year were Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. States which performed the least were Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Mizoram and Nagaland.
But there seems to be a change in spending pattern. States spent much more in the first three months of the current financial year compared to the corresponding period last year. The new pattern defies the established notion that spending is usually more in the second half of a financial year. Uttar Pradesh, with the highest population in the country, made a surprise entry in the list after it spent most after West Bengal in this financial year.
Last year, Uttar Pradesh spent only 50 per cent of the allocated amount when 77.3 per cent of its rural population continues to defecate in the open.
Beside delegating the entire responsibility to states, the Centre has roped in private sector and public sector units for construction of toilets. This was done to ease the financial burden on both the states' and the federal government.
Activists have questioned the rationale behind trimming the total sanitation budget in the current financial year. Though the drinking water and sanitation ministry had sought nearly Rs 12,000 crore, the finance ministry provided them a total sanitation budget of Rs 3,500 crore, lower from Rs 4,260 crore in 2014-15. The component of information, education and communication (IEC), which is reserved for motivating people, has been lowered to eight per cent in the total sanitation budget.