Mission Sanitation - Lessons from Civil Society

Seetha Gopalakrishnan
Friday, January 23, 2015 - 19:27

Author: Amrtha Kasturi Rangan

As you read this, more than 15,000 people in over 60 villages in Tamil Nadu will be doing something they would not have imagined 2 years back - using their private, bath-attached toilets. Brightly painted bath attached toilets meet brighter smiles when water storage structures and specially designed toilet seats for their infants accompany them.
Only 18% of the support for these toilets has come from government funds. A major portion was raised by the families themselves while the rest came from other financial agencies. 
Not all eez well
The overall sanitation situation in India, however, leaves little to rejoice. 3 children under five lost their lives every minute in 2011 due to poor sanitation. Government estimates indicate that around 9 crore households in rural India lack clean sanitation facilities. Independence Day 2014 witnessed the leader of the government urging its people to abdicate open defecation within 5 years. To paraphrase a popular poem, there is no time to stand and stare. 
Successful initiatives can be great teaching tools. Practitioners and government staff can understand what works and what doesn't and make a fervent push to replicate micro successes on a macro scale. 
Barriers to safe sanitation
There are four important barriers to safe sanitation. First, the attitude of people, especially in rural areas, where defecating in the open is the norm. The second and third barriers are the more practical considerations of space and money. Absence of both limits the ability of people, even those with intent, to construct toilets. The fourth barrier is something civil society and government alike struggle with – getting people to use the toilets they have built. 
NGOs, however, have found simple solutions to overcome these barriers. 
Facilitating change
Motivating people to build toilets, is perhaps the most difficult. Folk art, which is interactive, educational and humorous, is an effective tool to create a buzz around the topic. This should be followed up with peer-to-peer interaction and intense engagement with local stakeholders like Panchayat members, masons, self-help groups and even local hardware store owners. All this requires skilled teams. 
Bulk of the sanitation grant money, nearly 95% in the Tamil Nadu project, is for building resource teams and developing materials that they require to nudge people to adopt safe sanitation practices. The return, in the case of the Tamil Nadu project, was 4 times our grant money, which was leveraged from the various sources mentioned above. This can be replicated in government schemes that set aside money for awareness campaigns.
When NGO efforts pay off, people who earlier watched from the sidelines get motivated to construct their own toilets - for their daughters, wives and infants. 
Yet, sometimes their plans don’t succeed. Because space and/or money constraints. 
The problem of space can be resolved by collective action. Co-joint toilets are built on land that the local government is petitioned to set aside. These toilets look similar to public facilities but are owned / maintained by individuals. Joint construction reduces costs as well.
Even when there are no space issues, the lack of financial resources pose a major hurdle. In the current government set up, incentives for toilet construction are released only after construction is complete. This means that families have to arrange for this money upfront and when that cannot be arranged, toilet dreams take a back seat. It’s here that contractors make the entry. They put the required money upfront and construct these toilets, but one can never be sure of the quality.
A revolving fund is the best way to overcome this situation. Money is given up-front to families at low or no interest and is later recovered when the government subsidy is released. Access to funding here acts as a trigger to introduce better sanitation. Families can now construct the kind of toilets they want.
When these steps are followed scrupulously, it is likely that some toilets will not get used at all or will be used only by some people in the house. Men may think toilets are for women, while the women may think that these toilets are assets to be used only by the next generation. Older people may see toilets as a new-generation fad similar to the smart-phones and tablets that do the rounds these days. Such attitudes and beliefs must be understood and dealt with. 
More than just brick and mortar
Improving sanitation goes much beyond brick and mortar structures. It requires experts from diverse fields like communication, behavioural science, technology, data collection and data analysis to come together and build robust, locally relevant designs. This will ensure that each of the 48,000 toilets built per day, will be functional, used regularly and maintained well!
The author works for Arghyam, a charitable foundation established by Rohini Nilekani. Arghyam’s experiences supporting sanitation initiatives across the country are shared here.