Enter Ramduari in Uttar Pradesh's impoverished Sitapur district, and the toilets stand out in their striking white newness, one outside every home. We are told they came four months ago, under Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), the United Progressive Alliance-era scheme to build individual rural toilets, now replaced by the prime minister's even more ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. On paper, the NBA seemed unexceptionable: individual demands for toilets would be routed via a district level committee to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which would release money into the account of the gram sabha: Rs 10,500 for each latrine. It was left to the beneficiary to decide the choice of contractor, size, design and so on. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan adopts roughly the same demand-driven model.
In Ramduari, however, the toilets had an unused air about them. The village continues to defecate along the banks of a nearby canal. We had come on a day when the clouds were dark with the prospect of rain. Isn't there a risk of faeces being washed into the canal? Yes, they said. Some even drink the water, we were told, an admission that drew nervous giggles. But why not use toilets? Hadn't they asked for it? No. They were built in one swoop by the village pradhan, identikit structures for the whole village, each roughly the size of a guard hut outside an urban bungalow. Even so, why not use them now that they are there? To this, there were no clear answers. Some suggested that they were poorly built (this was strictly not true, at least not in every case). Others had more legitimate doubts about how the toilets are meant to work. The design we came across was the basic Sulabh-tested flush latrine, with the waste emptying, successively, into two underground tanks. After three years, the waste in the tank can be emptied and used as compost. Did anyone explain any of this? Or the importance of using toilets? The health risks of open defecation? The answer was a resounding no.
This might have something to do with the fact that the the NBA spent only four per cent of the 15 per cent it kept aside for what is known as Information, Education and Communication (IEC). The envisaged army of evangelists at the state, district, block and gram sabha level, who would convince or shame the populace into using toilets via plays, workshops, training sessions and monitoring visits remained largely on paper.
Our experience in Sitapur seemed to broadly match the findings of a much-quoted survey on toilet usage (or the lack of it) by the Uttar Pradesh-based RICE Institute, which surveyed 3,200 households in five Indian states to find that in 40 per cent of households that had toilets, at least one person still defecated in the open. The reasons varied from the notion that doing the business outdoors was healthier, to a reluctance to use poorly constructed sarkari latrines.
Nipun Vinayak, today a deputy secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, is not a great believer in the subsidy-driven, nanny state approach to the toilet problem. As the CEO of the zilla parishad Jalna in Maharashtra and later as Municipal Commissioner of the city of Nanded, he was witness to the merits of a community-based approach (known as community-led total sanitation or CLTS) to ending open defecation, where the focus is entirely on triggering a collective shift in social attitudes. "You have to stand in the shit and ask questions of the village like 'who's shit is this? And 'where has yesterday's shit gone?'. At first, they think of this as drama, but then the community realises this is the same shit that is ultimately contaminating our water and we need to stop it."
At the ministry, we were told that CLTS has its merits but cannot be scaled up, a contention that blithely ignores neighbouring Bangladesh that aggressively adopted the community model to reduce open defecation from 34 per cent to three per cent in 20 years.
Swachh Bharat's IEC budget is three times the amount under NBA, but is a smaller proportion - eight per cent - of the net budget. The construction budget, by comparison is seven times greater. The overall budget of about Rs 30,000 crore a year is roughly equivalent to NREGA, about whose efficacy the new regime seems to have developed grave doubts.
How will this multi-crore frenzy of construction be monitored, given the depredations of the past? The ministry has launched a new app that will allow beneficiaries to upload pictures of their newly constructed toilets onto its website. SBA's target of 110 million toilets in five years amounts to one toilet every second. Three weeks after the scheme launched, the app showed about 29 uploaded images, mostly desultory views of the ministry's offices - empty workstations and water coolers. Tiny lettering on the top right hand corner said the app was still in "demo stage".