Wanted: Efficient workers and simple systems to make India open defecation free

Seetha Gopalakrishnan
Tuesday, January 27, 2015 - 11:37

Author: Madhavi Purohit

With sanitation occupying centre stage, practically every day there is an article related to sanitation in mainstream media interspersed with announcements relating to government’s sanitation programme. 
The sanitation challenge has several facets – generating demand for better sanitation facilities, changing behaviour so people give up old habits and start using toilets, construction quality and technologies, finances for building the toilets and finally the service delivery or the ‘supply side’.
Arghyam's sanitation story
Arghyam a grant making Indian foundation working in water and sanitation space since 2005, diversified its sanitation portfolio during the last two years and worked closely in partnership with the Government of Karnataka on the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), the government’s flagship rural sanitation programmme.  
Together, it ran a communication campaign in January-February 2014 to generate demand for toilets in a few villages of Karnataka as part of the NBA using a two pronged strategy. One was to use emotional triggers to motivate men to act responsibly and build toilets for their families. The other was to provide correct information about eligibility, the process of availing the government incentive after building the toilet and giving an assurance on the payment to the eligible people. 
The campaign was fairly successful and showed that professional communication expertise can add considerable value to understand what can make the difference in getting people to build toilets. 
Within a month of the campaign about 2000 households started constructing toilets.
The HR crunch
Generating demand alone, however,  is not enough. Time-bound disbursal of subsidy is critical. And this makes the human resources, systems and the provisions under the scheme itself more important.
Within the government’s programme framework, at the district level there are three consultants and a Coordinator responsible for the programme, but these positions lie vacant most of the time. 
Through Arghyam’s interaction in Karnataka in one district it was found that a staff of 3 to coordinate works in 230 GPs is quite inadequate. Consultants are busy responding to new strategies and orders, addressing audit requirements, sorting out data entry issues and are left with very little time for the regular programme work of demand generation, follow-up on construction and subsidy disbursal. In addition, inadequate logistics support to visit villages on a regular basis also slows down the pace. 
Posts lying vacant due to transfers are not uncommon at the taluk level. This means, the second tier for review and follow-up is most often missing. Sometimes taluk coordinators are deputed from other departments. However, they can be repatriated to their parent department at any time. At the Gram Panchayat, the Panchayat Development Officers (PDOs) are frequently transferred and GP presidents change. With each change, time is lost in understanding the programme and its various processes and systems. 
Swachchata Doots 
Amidst this HR structure, one bright spot that was discovered during the course of the campaign was the involvement of Swachchata Doots (sanitation messengers). The policy provides for them, but in reality many exist only on paper. 
Arghyam’s campaign was able to effectively bring them on board with clear responsibilities and a fixed honorarium, even if only for the campaign duration. 
The sanitation programme does not have any exclusive staff at the village level and largely depends on staff from other departments such as health and education. The result is that the ownership of the programme and consequently the onus is with nobody. 
In this scenario the sanitation messenger can play the role of the dedicated resource for the programme and provide the critical link between the people and the Panchayat.  A fool-proof system for their selecting, training and fixing incentives for these barefoot workers can go a long way to allow the sanitation agenda to incubate at the grassroots level. 
Communication campaign – Making things clearer or more consfused?
One has to deal with a barrage of changes in the scheme and drives that are announced every few days. In the last eight months alone several strategies have been announced by the State and the Central government related to promoting individual household toilets. In Karnataka some of these were to increase subsidy for SC/ST families while the most recent was to generate applications and construct 100 toilets per GP within a month (by Gandhi Jayanti on 2nd October, 2014). 
In July 2014 the centre announced the mission to build 5.2 million toilets in 100 days, i.e. 1 toilet per second. Early September 2014 witnessed indications from the centre about increasing incentives to Rs.15000 and of delinking the NBA from the MG-NREGA. District teams are directed to focus on the fast-tracking progress in taluks that are found lagging behind in fulfilling the NBA agenda. 
The slew of announcements tends to create a lot of confusion around the scheme in the minds of the people as well as the government functionaries. While villagers want to wait for the increased incentives to come into force before choosing to construct toilets, Gram Panchayat and Zilla Parishad leaders want clear orders to reach their desks before planning any further work.
Although the communication campaign initially triggered a good response, there was difficulty converting it into tangible results due to various reasons. First, for about a month there was a district-wide freeze on the MGNREGA account due to irregularities in the documentation of community development works across several GPs. This was followed by an overall lull in the administration, thanks to the general elections and its code of conduct. Then there was a social audit of NBA documentation and after this came up issues in the data entry on ‘Panchatantra’, the MIS developed by the Government of Karnataka. There is absolutely no dearth of disruptions in regular work under and the staff is continuously diverted into dealing with these matters. 
Simplify procedures
In 2012 when the NBA guidelines were revised, convergence with the NREGA was introduced and incentive for constructing toilets was increased. While this was a significant improvement, taking this out of the drawing board and onto the ground has been a challenge. 
As per the NREGA guidelines the Nominal Muster Roll or the NMR has to be created once the application is submitted so that the payment can be made to the beneficiary. Unlike community development works, in case of toilets, individual NMRs have to be created for a very small amount. So at the GP level the preference is for bigger community development works. Filling out the 13 page application form of NBA that requires other supporting documents is cumbersome. Given the situation, NBA does not get priority at the village level. This is exacerbated by the non-availability of adequate funds. 
One of the important aspects of the communication campaign was a service guarantee, i.e. a promise of incentive disbursal in 20 day after completion of the toilet. But due to lack of NREGA funds for almost 5 months, the 20 day promise could not be fulfilled. This dissuaded early adopters from completing toilet construction and others from starting. With no clarity on when payments will be cleared, the GP functionaries and Swachchata Doots too have no face to motivate the next set of toilet adopters. 
Data trouble
After the census of 2011 came up with numbers on toilet coverage quite disparate from the data of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, all states carried out a fresh baseline survey in early 2012. But as we visited the villages where the campaign was carried out and spoke to the Panchayat development officers and Presidents we discovered that this baseline too was not quite accurate. The baseline numbers are higher than actual households without toilets. This is due to various reasons (under reporting by households in the hope that they will get a fresh incentive,  joint families reporting as nuclear families, non-reporting of toilets constructed independently by households or built by NGOs etc.). This has made tracking the actual toilet coverage and progress of the programme difficult.
These views have been formed mainly from having interacted with the government programme very closely in just one district of Karnataka, a better performing state. But in so far as the scheme and its various provisions remain the same, the situation in other states could be similar or even worse.
Strengthen quantity and quality of manpower
The question therefore is that of the number of people working exclusively on sanitation, the quality of the training and their capacities. We need to seriously question whether it is possible to constantly rope in already burdened ASHAs, anganwadi workers, school teachers and others for sanitation related work. The impact of continuously changing strategies and the time lost in making adjustments to systems and processes with each change is also a very importabt aspect that needs consideration. 
The idea here is not to paint a completely gloomy picture. But as the nation – governments, NGOs, donors, citizens and others - comes together to push the sanitation agenda, keeping ourselves informed of this environment and the challenges therein assumes utmost importance. We, now, cannot ignore the fact that strategies to address issues of HR, capacities, systems and processes to deal with evolving scenarios is of critical importance and is no longer a distant option.

The author works for Arghyam, a charitable foundation established by Rohini Nilekani. Arghyam’s experiences supporting the NBA programme in one district of Karnataka are shared here.