Since last three years, on Prime Minister’s direction, IAS officers spend three months in Government of India as Assistant Secretaries, after completion of their two-year training period, and before they are posted in districts to start their work independently. I had an opportunity to gauge the minds of these young officers on Swachh Bharat during a recent interaction organised by the Department of Personnel and Training. I asked each one of them – they are a batch of around 180 officers – to write one question they had uppermost in their mind about Swachh Bharat.
Having gone through these questions, the first thing that strikes is that the officers seem to be well aware of the key issues pertaining to the subject. This was more than a cursory knowledge about a subject – signifying that Swachh Bharat (at last) occupies a prominent place in the development agenda of this country. Sure, they have been exposed to lectures on Swachh Bharat in the Mussoorie Academy ( Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie), and have observed its implementation closely and upfront during their district training.
A large number of officers asked whether behaviour change could be carried out in a hasty manner – with simultaneous pressure of achieving ‘target’ by 2019 ? They also expressed concerns on credibility of ODF verification. Of course, they had in mind issues of quality of processes and sustainability of outcomes. Having been exposed to community approach, they see quite well the paradox between policy – that focuses on collective behaviour change; and possible neglect of the same in implementation at some places. ‘Has focus turned back to toilets?’ , ‘Why the subsidy of 12,000 is not done away with?’ – questions like these from the officers raise a red flag and call for introspection. On the other hand, it is also reassuring that officers who will be playing critical role in making their sub-divisions/districts ODF over the next two years are well apprised of the issues and seem to have their head and heart at the right place.
My take on ‘pressure of 2019’ is that while it may seem to be a short time to effect real change, actually it may not be ! Swachh Bharat has been around for three years now – the strategies for accomplishing collective behaviour change are well known now. Drawing from experiences of champions across the States, a Swachh Bharat Idea book, available with the Ministry compiles these strategies ( See https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4DIkPePbMz6NU45YWJnZXlyMzA/view). Skills for triggering tools are also much more widespread now, and the officers can draw on this skill-set to address their query on ‘How to motivate?’ The programme also has a fair understanding of sustainability : guidelines on ODF sustainability brought out by the Ministry, compiling best practices from across the States is a good referral document, that may benefit the officers ( See http://www.mdws.gov.in/guidelines-open-defecation-free-odf-sustainability-15122016). The mechanism for ODF verification has also been laid down clearly : and it is for the officer to maintain rigour in verification in his (includes her) district. Given this background, it should not be impossible for a DC or an SDO to make his district/ sub-division ODF within a year, provided he plans his strategy well, adopts the correct approach, builds capacities of his team and keeps an eye on actual outcomes. The role of the State/ Centre in this case will be to constantly motivate him, trust him, allow him innovations, address any bottlenecks that he may be facing, provide him the necessary skills, and expose him to best practices. This will do a greater help than ‘bureaucratic’ reviews and monitoring, which create avoidable pressure on the officer.
Officers also raised issue of difference in approach in different States : Bihar, for example, releases toilet incentive, only after the entire village ward is free from open daefecation. Flexibility for such differences in approach is one hallmark of Swachh Bharat : sanitation being a State subject, it is most prudent to let the States address the problem, the way they consider most appropriate, as long as they are achieving the correct outcomes ! Officers also wanted to know specific measures required for effective implementation of the programme in North East. The answers, they will find themselves, once they are in the field. What is heartening is that they are seeking.
A few officers also questioned focus of Swachh Bharat on toilets, and optimal design of toilets in high water table areas. Some wanted to know how Swachh Bharat could be a success in water scarce areas. As to toilet focus of Swachh Bharat, let me mention that this was a conscious thing inculcated in rural Swachh Bharat – for a reason. The idea of Swachh Bharat – especially due to the Prime Minister’s picture of broom in hand – meant different things to different people. Especially to the urban (opinion making) population, Swachh Bharat came to be identified as removal of kachra. In the rural areas however, Swachh Bharat was an opportunity to clean that shit that was invisible to the eye – it was distant from the village by the side of the stream. Away from media, it would never have caught eye as a public issue. However, it was precisely this hidden shit that was killing children – around 1000 a day in India! Therefore, it was important that Swachh Bharat be used to clean up this mess – since the main objective of the programme was health improvement. Many States concurred with this approach – they knew the danger of an early focus on solid and liquid waste – it would have transformed Swachh Bharat into a naali (drain) construction programme – something that was in much demand by the local politicians. Having said this, after two years of focus on ODF, Swachh Bharat has started to lay emphasis on SLWM ( solid liquid waste management) as well. In fact, during the initial years, there have been successful pilots of SLWM in States such as Tamil Nadu ( Coimbatore), Maharashtra ( Nanded) , Himachal ( Mandi) and Haryana ( Karnal). These are now being scaled up. In some sense, the fight in the initial years of Swachh Bharat was not a fight between toilets and SLWM ; it was between a supply-driven approach and community empowering behaviour change approach. As is well known now, the challenge in SLWM is also not technical – it is more managerial and community ownership/participation related. An agni pariksha of community in ODF prepares itself to tackle the SLWM more effectively. Like the sarpanch of Rampur ( Khagariya) , 1st ODF village of Bihar announced in the State level workshop – ” a year ago when we took up the ODF work, no one could believe we would actually achieve it. Now having made exceptional efforts for it and having achieved it, my confidence has increased. I assure you now – in one year henceforth, my village will not have any standing water”. No where in his speech, he was asking for funds or support from anyone. He was just expressing his resolve – borne out of positive potential unleashed in the ODF process. This is a real change.
As far as toilet design is concerned, it is clarified that Swachh Bharat does not promote any particular design, and is satisfied as long as the toilet ensures safe disposal of human excreta. In fact, prescription of designs from higher levels kills the local innovation, that is against the spirit of Swachh Bharat. The twin pit toilet has been found to be cheaper and more effective, and has therefore been prescribed specifically by some States such as Chhattisgarh. This model is not promoted as a cheaper and poorer version of the elitist septic tank : rather as a more effective technology. For most areas, this model should work. Even in some high water table areas, experts prescribe variants of twin pit on a raised platform. These technologies are well known and can be used. A greater risk to my mind has arisen at some places due to neglect of safe horizontal distance between a toilet pit and a water source ( handpump/ well). Problem also arises because of unsafely built twin pits – with pits 10 feet deep : since people believe smaller pits would fill up early. It is here that work is required for public awareness. (See tips on technology here http://www.mdws.gov.in/letters-circulars/letter-regarding-toilet-technology-22022017 ). For real water logged areas/ very hard rock areas, other technologies/ variants are available.
The question regarding success of Swachh Bharat where water is scarce is also asked much. It has now been proved that open daefecation in India is not linked to low water availability. Dean Spears from RICE institute has proven by research that India daefecates outside much more than many other countries with much lower water availability. This is not to say that water is not required for cleaning : what is being said is that rural toilets with high sloping pan do not require as much water as would inhibit their use. Even flushing is not expected in twin pit toilets. Plus, even in water scarce areas, if a family is arranging water for all other purposes – deinking, bathing, cleaning the house, cleaning the dishes – a 2 litre for toilet can also be arranged (or saved). The crux is that open daefecation is more of a socio-cultural issue that has nothing to do with less water. Now, this is not to say that water issue is not to be addressed. As young officers, you will be poised to address both sanitation and water issues. The difference is that while open daefecation problem will have to be addressed through a sociological behavioural change solution – water supply will require a professional service delivery. The latter per se will not address the issue of open daefecation. On the other hand, you can marry the two by positively incentivising those villages that become ODF by providing them water supply on a priority. This is also the official policy.
The social sensitivity of these officers was revealed when they queried about issues such as caste-based safai karamcharis, manual scavenging and technological innovations to prevent manual cleaning of septic tanks/sewers. These issues, being multidimensional, span beyond Swachh Bharat : and it will be great if Swachh Bharat takes lead in/ becomes the fulcrum for addressing these upfront. Officers also seemed apprised about the wider dimensions of Swachh Bharat, when they talked of measures such as banning of Pan Paraag (chewable tobacco) or showed concern on recent urban floodings ( in part due to choked water bodies).
Officers also had queries about urban Swachh Bharat. They felt that the component of public participation in the Swachh Survekshan questionnaire was skewed and affected fairness of survey. As an outsider, i resonated with the unease about one aspect of Swachh Survekshan. My fellow panelist, with due courtesy to him, explained at length, how in three months prior to Swachh Survekshan, their cities could ‘expedite’ ODF, with the result that most of their cities figured in the top 100 or so. It reminded me of the erstwhile NGP ( Nirmal Gram Puraskar) scheme of rural areas, which greatly increased the momentum of rural sanitation, and also tilted the programme in favour of collective change; however evaluations later showed poor sustainability of those results. The lesson was that efforts were made for the ‘award’ and therefore, lost its sanctity to an extent. An effort done, for its own sake, without an external carrot or stick, sustains longest. Officers also wanted to know the solutions for crowded slum settlements. Each slum may require a participative exercise in arriving at an appropriate solution, that is acceptable by the community and maintainable in the long run. A newspaper, after a city received ODF reward, mentioned that mobile toilets were made avialable for the slums at the time of Survekshan. The broad point is that evaluation is not a substitute for implementation. A periodic evaluation surely charges up the environment : however, it cannot be a substitute for ‘dirty ground work’ that has to be carried out relentlessly, starting from slums ! One is aware of the heaps of garbage, stagnating water pools and open daefecation on the rail-track adjoining colonies. Talisman will be improvement in these. Ministry of Urban Development may look into these aspects. Finally, the practices of solid waste management usually cited as ‘best’ are capital intensive, centralised ‘professional’ collection, transportation and disposal practices. An officer queried whether there can be equally good decentralised practices. Bang on ! Ministry of Urban Development is already promoting composting. It will be good to see city wide (on scale) successful examples of individual/ locality wise decentralised composting that substitute formal collection by municipalities.
Finally, the officers talked of accountability : with each government department being held accountable for swachhta within its own domain. The inter – Departmental convergence is critical for Swachh Bharat. These very officers will soon play the role of first amongst equals in district heads if various departments, and buck will stop at them. The ingenuity, grit and leadership abilities of these young officers will be called to test very soon. They have a golden opportunity to bring real change.
A few questions were interestingly different . I close with those.
1. “My mind is clean. So I don’t have any questions” !!
2. “Why don’t we design ‘blue whale’ type challenges for Swachh Bharat?
And this one was serious :
3. “What if we are not ODF by 2019?” 🙂