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Government of India

Date

September 30, 2016

Changing the dirty picture!

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Author : Sudhirendar Sharma

Since its launch two years ago, on Oct 2, 2014, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has persisted in the country’s imagination as a task worth pursuing, aimed at transforming peoples’ attitude towards open defecation once and for all. The sustained impetus to the scheme, including new behavioural change ads, has raised hope amidst the current stinking despair that an end will be put to the national scourge by 2019.

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Ambitious in its targets, the scheme has galvanized support of many departments in the government to trigger change. SBM is perhaps the first-of-its-kind scheme that has sought to bring about behavioural change to an age-old practice of so-called ‘personal convenience’. In addition to the meeting the physical target of constructing toilets, the scheme has to contend with the ineffable attitude of a vast majority who prefer ‘open’ to the ‘closet’

Swatch Bharat – Gramin

Yet, the scheme has made significant progress. Over 2.3 crore household toilets have been constructed in 88, 879 villages, making 23 districts ‘open defecation free’. And, as many as 141 cities have been freed from this impending disgrace. To add to it, door to door collection of waste has been implemented in 39,571 urban wards in the country, which accounts for 48 per cent of the wards in 4,041 cities in the country.

Swatch Bharat – Urban

The picture holds promise. While in urban areas 36 per cent households own a toilet, 55 percent rural households have so far been equipped with the convenience of a toilet. Over 76,000 community toilets have been built in the cities thus far which accounts for 30 per cent of the target. The pace of constructing public toilets in urban areas has been rather slow, only 9 per cent of the targeted 2.3 lakhs are in place.

Two years is too short a time, given a three-decade old legacy of slow pace by SBM predecessors. The Central Rural Sanitation Programme, launched in 1986, and rechristened as the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999, had sought to subsidize toilet construction in rural areas. Its revamped avatar, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, launched in 2012 had shifted focus on toilet usage over toilet construction by giving a booster dose to mass awareness.

It must, however, be noted that each of the previous schemes had set targets that were far from achieved. Transforming entrenched habits by setting ambitious targets can have limited impact in a country where some 650 million people relieve themselves under the open sky. While a significant majority may not be able to afford a toilet, a sizeable number has little qualms of easing themselves under the open skies.

Changing human behaviour has multiple dimensions, moreso when there isn’t any credible evidence linking toilet coverage to better health conditions. Consequently, radical social change may not be achieved by imposing new ideological position alone. Eliminating open defecation is undoubtedly the need of the hour, but for SBM to make a significant dent behaviour change has to move center stage in the implementation process.

Need it be said that the government manpower is not adequately equipped to engineer shifts in social behaviour, moreso when it is a case of ‘old habits die hard’. Add to this is the dingy toilet with insufficient lighting that acts as a deterrent to its use, which according to VS Naipaul created the fear of claustrophobia within a closet. Many of those who opt for open skies to do so because their sensory faculties miss out any engagement inside the toilet.

The diversity of our vast cultural landscape and its immense economic disparity warrants varied solutions to the same problem at different locations. Therefore, the need is to get a fresh measure of the problem after discounting past failures. The need for developing toilet design to suit differing perceptions cannot be over-stated. Working closely with people, understanding how they are thinking will involve a ‘nudge’ rather than a push.

Nudge hypothesis is now a major area of behavioural research, creating a mix of software and hardware solutions to a range of difficult situations, from encouraging households on waste recycling to inspiring people to donate organs. As a strategy, nudge has found practical applications for governments to apply, demonstrating that for governments to be cost-effective it should do more steering and less rowing.

SBM has rightly been selected to change sanitation behaviour as a headline priority in the country. Widespread political support on the other hand has offered a great opportunity to rid a problem that is worth 6.4 per cent of GDP due to productivity loss. Nothing could be more urgent than the fact that Rs 20,000 crore spent on sanitation programs since 1999, and until the launch of SBM, has added to the numbers of open defecators in the country.

The question that begs an answer is: why toilet is not a priority for millions of households? Is decision-making conditioned by the cognitive limitations of the human mind? It is the understanding of human psychology that the government machinery would need help in getting a sense of, before devising strategies for providing context-specific choice architecture for people as there is a subtle distinction between a toilet and the idea of a toilet.

The challenge before the policymakers would be to engage with behavioural economists to create conditions such that open defecators not only reflect upon their choices and dilemmas but are encouraged to throw away their blinkers too. Luckily, the government has the political will and has caught the attention of the masses.

But five years does not offer the luxury of time in changing the dirty picture!

*Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent researcher on water and sanitation issues.

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Mahatma Gandhi: A political trend-setter

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Author : Dr. S. Chandni Bi

Special Feature-3 on Gandhi Jayanti

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi born in the middle of 19th century. We are in the 21st century, yet his memory lives with us. The Father of the Nation never ceases to amaze young and old how such a simple and humble human being like any one of us could reach such unattainable heights. His selfless deep thinking for the common good elevated him to such a peak.

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When Gandhi entered the scene of Indian National Movement he was nearly fifty years old. He gained experience over more than two decades, working for the common cause of Indians in South Africa, adopting different political tools such as Satyagraha, non-violence and civil disobedience, besides the earlier process of appeals, petitions and pleadings.

His struggles in South Africa helped him gain familiarity and initial acceptance in India.  But the Indian political scenario was completely different.

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Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1869 – 1948) when he was practising as an attorney in South Africa. 

The politicians were more westernised in mindset, social and political activities and even in personal habits and ways of dressing. Gandhi was already familiar with the westernized western trend of moderates and the so-called extremists who reacted to the increasing westernisation but remained stuck to the western method of opposition through guns and bombs.

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Gandhi and Kasturba on their return to India, January 1915

Gandhi came to India in 1915, not knowing what future lay in store for him. On the advice of Gopal Krishana Gokhale, Gandhi toured India to gain first hand self-experience. Gandhi’s simple dress gave signals to the public that he was approachable. His deeds in South Africa generated hopes with the common people to identify him as their Saviour.

There were three incidents –Champaran in Bihar, Kheda in Gujarat and also at Ahmadabad – that identified Gandhi a political trend setter in India.

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Gandhi in 1918, when he led the Kheda Satyagraha.

Champaran involved the sufferings of indigo planters at the hands of British. Gandhi on reaching Champaran was expelled by the Commissioner, but he refused and preferred punishment for his defiance of the law. This was unusual in British India, for Tilak and Annie Besant, when expelled from a particular province, obeyed orders, even though they organized public protests against the expulsion orders. ‘To offer passive resistance or civil disobedience to an unjust order was indeed novel.’ (Bipan Chandra, India’s Struggle for Independence, p-178). Finally, the local government not only allowed him to proceed but appointed him a member of the Inquiry Commission.

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Kheda Satyagraha Gujarat, 1918

Similarly in Kheda, peasants suffered from failure of crops and their appeals of remission of tax were ignored by the government. Gandhi advised them to withhold revenue, to fight ‘unto death against such a spirit of vindictiveness and tyranny’ and show that ‘it is impossible to govern men without their consent’. All peasants, who could pay and could not, were asked to pledge that they will forgo the tax. But Gandhi did not hesitate to withdraw the agitation after the condition of the peasants worsened.

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Ahmadabad Mill Strike 1918

In Ahmedabad, a dispute was brewing between the mill workers and the mill owners of Ahmadabad over the withdrawal of Plague Bonus. The owners wanted to discontinue the bonus when the epidemic had passed while the workers wanted that to be continued, to compensate the hike in prices due to the World War I. Here the British Collector himself approached Gandhi to bring pressure on the mill owners and work out a compromise to avoid shutdown.

Gandhi persuaded both the workers and the owners to agree to arbitration by a tribunal. But the mill owners breached the agreement which Gandhi took it as a serious issue and advised the workers to go on strike and insisted that no violence be used against employers. To encourage the workers, he took on a fast and promised he would be the first to starve, if needed. This brought pressure on the mill owners and they submitted the issue to a tribunal. The strike was withdrawn and the tribunal awarded 35% increase which the workers had demanded.

There is a common thread in these three events. Gandhi provided leadership to economically lower classes. Gandhi made a systematic study of the issues involved and made decisive impact through his policy of civil disobedience and non-co operation. For the first time in Indian politics, a politician had addressed the sufferings of marginalized Indians.

These events set the tone for the Indian freedom struggle acquiring an inclusive character. Gandhi gave leadership to all sections of the people of India, irrespective of caste, colour and creed, in the struggle for freedom.

This was a political watershed. He set a new paradigm of leadership. He laid the foundation of a true democratic India.

*Author is Associate Professor, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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