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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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