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Avoiding the cesspit

Swachh Bharat's challenge goes beyond building toilets

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Recent revelations of the underwhelming achievements of the Swachh Bharat programme - just as the cess to finance it kicks in - suggests that the government urgently needs to reconsider ways to achieve this eminently desirable goal. There are several issues that need addressing concerning a fundamental ennui towards sanitation and hygiene by policy makers and the aam aadmi alike. Data analysed by Business Standard show that the majority of states have underspent funds allocated by the Centre for the purpose. Even accounting for the rare state that overspent its allocation, Rs 1,570 crore remains unspent - significantly higher than the Rs 1,000 crore that the cess is expected to bring in annually. Only two states - Rajasthan and Odisha - overspent their allocation, and two - West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh - spent over 80 per cent. If state-level apathy needed underlining, the data show that states have underspent their own budgeted funds for sanitation too - in 10 states, by as much as 50 per cent.

There is a problem of accountability here. The Centre may levy the Swachh Bharat cess; the states are not spending the money allotted; but both of these are in fact the inappropriate levels of government. The real delivery for a cleaner India requires local government action. It is as yet unclear how the cess money will be used. To be most effective, it must build capacity, and responsiveness to the hygiene challenge, at the lowest level of government - municipalities and gram panchayats. A public campaign touting the benefits of a cleaner India without creating the basic administrative infrastructure that would make that cleaning a reality will naturally be ineffective beyond the short term.

Certainly, when it comes to open defecation in particular, a great part of the challenge is a general reluctance to actually use toilets. Last year, a survey by a research body highlighted the bizarre reality that most Indians prefer open defecation even if they own a pucca toilet. The government's own National Sample Survey Organisation recently confirmed this by revealing that despite constructing an impressive 10 million toilets, almost half are not used by the beneficiaries, both rural and urban. This public aversion to toilet usage is unique to India. The reasons have ranged from social explanations - morning ablutions in the open are regarded as a daily community activity - to a general indifference to public hygiene. Researchers say lack of water, another explanation that is often forwarded, does not hold because sub-Saharan Africa, which is even more water-starved than India, does not suffer this problem, and in any case, the solution of dry toilets of the kind used in Sweden is an easy and cost-effective solution. The real challenge, then, is encouraging people to actually use the toilets that are built for them. Perhaps a part of the cess should be devoted to a massive education programme on the benefits of indoor sanitation.

The trouble is that educating people and empowering localities is less tangible than massive asset creation by fiat from Delhi. Certainly, the latter is an easier sell in election campaigns. But if the government is serious about making India more hygienic and healthy it may need to eschew the latter for the hard grind of building awareness and local government capacity.

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First Published: Tue, November 24 2015. 21:41 IST