The government has announced that the Swacch Bharat Mission is to be a mass movement to make India open defecation free in five years. By spending one lakh thirty four thousand crore rupees for the construction of about 11 crore 11 lakh toilets in the country, “the pet project of the Prime Minister will be executed on a war footing with the involvement of every gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and Zila Parishad in the country, besides roping in large sections of rural population and school teachers and students in this endeavor.”
While it is commendable that the government has set high ambitions for making India free of the practice of open defecation, it is worth exploring the way in which they are planning on reaching this goal. Unfortunately, plans for the new Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) don’t look very different from the current Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). The priority is still on construction, perhaps even more so than before, and so does not appear to be as significant a break from the past as hoped.
One important change in the new SBM is its increased budget. 11 crore is the number of households that have no toilet facilities, so much of the enlarged budget will go towards building a new toilet for every household in India without one. This may seem like a good idea to those who argue that having a latrine is a prerequisite to using one, but we at r.i.c.e. would argue that there’s something that needs to happen even before that. We know from our recent SQUAT survey that many people in households with working latrines choose to defecate in the open anyway. To reach these people, we need to create a desire in them to actually have and use a toilet, even before they physically get or make one. Access to toilets alone will not solve the problem of open defecation when many people simply prefer to defecate in the open. Is the government really prepared to waste away the resources it is gearing up to spend?
Not only are more toilets to be built, but at 12,000 INR each, they cost 2,000 INR more than each latrine under the current NBA. As a simple exercise, we calculated that if the government hired one dedicated behavior change staff member for each of 700,000 villages, five staff members in each block office, and one staff member in each district, for five years, it would cost less than one-fifth of what it would cost to build a 12,000 INR toilet for every household without one in India. Not only does it make practical sense to focus on changing people’s minds, it makes financial sense too.
Rather than motivating people to want and use their latrines, the SBM is actually worse than the NBA in terms of behavior change because the IEC allocation has decreased from 15% of the budget to just 8%. While it may be true that this is a larger monetary amount than previously allocated (because the entire budget of the SBM is much larger than that of the NBA), the reduction is symbolic in terms of the importance given to changing people’s minds and sanitation practices versus construction. The language of the new policy indicates that “behaviour change and usage of toilets shall be given top priority to ensure increased demand,” but given budgetary allocations, this seems even less possible now than it was under the NBA.
It is useful to reflect on just how much money has actually been allocated, only for the construction of new toilets. Per year, the projected construction allocation under the SBM is more than 9 times the 2013-14 NBA expenditure, almost equal in size to the NREGA budget, and a full 2% of the entire 2013-14 Union budget. These numbers are enormous. And still, the question remains whether the government will actually be able to spend whatever money ultimately gets allocated. Of the cumulative funds allocated to the NBA and its predecessor, the TSC, till date, the government was able to spend only 80% of funds allocated for household construction and 40% of funds allocated to IEC. Without hiring more ground staff to increase what the government has the capacity to spend, it is unlikely that the SBM will be able to make faster progress than previous sanitation efforts.
It is disappointing that the government has not taken a fundamentally new approach to the challenge of ending open defecation. Still, we sincerely hope that the government will commit to increasing its capacity to carry out this ambitious mission. We are committed to helping learn more about which messages will work in motivating people to use latrines, and to promoting behavior change as the first priority. While construction seems to have trumped behavior change thus far, we hope that the Swacch Bharat Mission can still ensure that what has been allocated to behavior change is spent and that the only toilets that are constructed are those that will be used.