Lessons from Singapore

Singapore provided insights into some useful concepts deployed by the country in their public policy. I am outlining five broad ideas emerging from my recent tour that are of overarching relevance.

2. The first one is leadership. Visionary and committed political leadership in Singapore for a prolonged period provided policy continuity and remained the main pillar of Singapore’s development.  The civil service, with merit-based promotions and peaking of careers at younger age, also have lessons for India.  Especially, the system of performance evaluation, looking at the potential of an officer – and not just his prior performance – through qualities such as `helicopter quality’ (ability to understand the broader picture, while simultaneously zooming in on details, wherever required), analysis, imagination and realism is impressive.  The public organizations also seem to have a better developed second rung of specialists/think tanks developed over the years through multiple mechanisms, including the Public Sector Leadership Programme.

3. The second important learning is focus on education – reinforcing the theory of emphasizing on this endowment for redistributive justice. Education has been looked upon in Singapore not only as an important component for individual development, but also a medium for cohesion amongst different ethnicities – Singaporeans are supposed to study only in Singapore public schools – and consequent nation-building.  The aptitude and potential of a child is gauged at an early stage to provide him specific academic/technical/other specialized education and training.  The due importance of skills and link with industry may have important lessons for ‘Skill India Mission’.

4. The third noteworthy concept is pragmatism in public policy, meritocracy and appropriate use of behavioural economics concepts and ‘nudging’ in public policy. Singaporeans are not bound by any broad ideology and the State is a wonderful mix of free market as well as State control, wherever required (for e.g. housing, health, and education).  Through an iterative process, the policy-makers developed solutions best suited to their conditions.  When they realized that their children were weak in mathematics, they worked deeply on the same and came up with a `Singaporean Maths’ model that sets global high standards today.  The country appropriately uses ‘nudging’ and ‘default options’ to promote desirable behaviour in areas such as tax payment and savings.

5. Singapore like India is a pluralistic society. Having faced racial riots in the 1960s, the country has taken proactive measures to integrate the different ethnic groups.  This has been done through housing societies that compulsorily houses people from different communities in proportion to their population, provision of open space in these localities for their inter-mingling and  common education that provides a sense of unity and builds a national value. There is a system of       specific support (but no reservations) to economically vulnerable groups.  All this may have important lessons for India.

6. Last but not the least, Singapore has used technology effectively to provide solutions to public problems. The entire State is wired, that has proved to be a big deterrent against any crime.  `Digital India’ Programme can draw lessons from this.

Behavioural economics and policy design for Swachh Bharat

Singapore recycles its water, including sewage water. When they realised they are a water deficient country, and that Malaysia was ever increasing the price of water given to Singapore, they had to find innovative ways of solving the issue. They thought of recycling water, including sewage water. There was a lot of debate on using recycled sewage water for drinking , not only amongst the laymen, but also amongst the scientists. The policy makers were sure that recycled water was safe and this solution had to be promoted. Over-information was not the solution – however much they clarified about its safety, counter opinions continued to surface. They realised that the real reason for public opinion against recycled water was disgust – the ‘yuck factor’; and they addressed precisely the same. On their National day, with full attention of the country and the world, the Prime Minister of Sungapore and his entire team drank recycled water to dispel doubts about its safety ! That was the turning point for people accepting recycled water.
 (Above slide from Prof Leong Ching, LKY School’s presentation; NeWater refers to recycled sewage water)
In India too, there are a lot of myths about having a toilet close to home – it would smell, it is dirty, it would overflow, how will we empty it etc. Robert Chambers had suggested a few months back that these myths can be dispelled if a VVIP in India were to empty the latrine pit ( that has been in use for many years to render excreta safe) and hold the converted manure in his hands. Having seen what Singapore authorities did with respect to dispelling the ‘yuck factor’ around recycled water, time for this idea may be ripe !
Singapore authorities also zoomed in on the fact that complex decisions that involve behavioural change cannot be determined by simplistic data choices but may require a detailed narrative analysis. For example, the question of recycled water is not just about what percentage of people accept it. It is also about a host of other factors that can be described as – Singaporeans generally want self-sufficiency in water, recycled water is cost-effective and innovative way for self sufficiency, it is important for global security etc. – seen in the context of all these, the ‘yuck factor’ gets diluted.
 (Narrative analysis in terms of behavioural analysis of use of recycled sewage water for drinking; slide taken from Prof Leong Ching, LKY School’s presentation)
Similarly, in the context of Swachh Bharat also, the question whether people prefer to go out for defecation is the wrong question, and does not describe the entire gamut of programme. Leaders and implementers of the programme must expand the narrative analysis of Swachh Bharat to – sanitation is closely linked with diarrhoea and child morbidity and mortality, India cannot afford to have thousands of her children die due to preventable illnesses like diarrhoea, cleanliness and hygiene contribute to health etc. This broad narrative analysis will put Swachh Bharat in comprehensive behavioural analysis, much beyond data on few parameters.
Policy design for any public issue necessitates appropriate problem identification in the first place.  For Swachh Bharat, the problem is open defecation and littering/ stagnant water. The rest of the things – lack of capacity, lack of desire, poor supply, lack of toilets, lack of resources, habit – can be causes; but not the main problem. So while we may get deeper into the causes, and sift and prioritise them, and address them, we cannot lose focus on what the original problem is. By corollary, our outcomes have to be necessarily measured by how well the problem is addressednot how well the causes are addressed.
Focus on ‘authorising environment’ and ‘managerial capacity’: The strategic triangle of public policy has three dimensions – ‘public value’, ‘authorising environment’ and ‘managerial capacity’. The ‘public value’ is drawn from appropriate outcomes and is obvious. The ‘authorising environment’ refers to adequate flow of authority and support from say, political masters. While it is usually taken for granted, and indeed at the national level, for Swachh Bharat, this is presently unprecedented, it may be useful to revaluate the same at the State/ district level and to continue to influence actors who are important and can significantly influence the programme . A talisman on A plus for this parameter can be, if the most important stakeholders such as the Chief Minister, for e.g., make a mention of Swachh Bharat on priority in their public speeches, and review it regularly with the Collectors. The third dimension, ‘managerial capacity’ is the single biggest challenge for Swachh Bharat and must remain top priority for States and districts – strengthening their teams and providing them requisite skills.
Who are our stakeholders? Shanmuga, CEO, Zilla Panchayat Harda, Madhya Pradesh rightly remarked that all citizens of Harda were their stakeholders for Swachh Harda ! At a managerial level, however, it may be important to categorise and list out all the stakeholders – so that no one is ignored/left out ( all hands on deck !) and so that communication strategies specific to stakeholders can be drawn-out. Since we have to reach out to many, small two-minute videos, carrying appropriate message may do the trick ! It is also important that information is pictorial, and one that people relate to closely. A hoarding of ‘pair of eyes’ ( stern eyes more effective) has been found to effectively deter a wrong-doer (?open-defecator).
Given the scale of problem, ‘smart’ solutions may have to be innovated. How does less effort yield greater result ? In Singapore, they adapted flush technology that automatically reduced water usage by 1/3rd. The water bills that go in Singapore contains a simple line – ” The average bill in your locality is …”, prompting those with higher bills to reduce their water usage ! How do we ‘frame’ and ‘brand’ Swachh Bharat, so that it ‘nudges’ people to be a part of it, so that having a ‘toilet’ becomes a ‘social norm’. Subsidies have not been found to be particularly effective in influencing behaviours – ‘nudges’ can do the trick! The books ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler or ‘Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think’ by Peter John explain the power of nudging, and it is for all the implementers to apply these principles smartly in the programme.
Participation in programme has to be made easier through administrative and financial simplification. Having a toilet should be the ‘default’ option ! Our housing scheme – Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – should have had an in-built provision for a toilet; alas Rural Development Department missed this important opportunity! There should be lower barriers to participation, with measures such as pre- filled forms, easy certificates/applications (wherever required) and supply-chain facilitation. The talisman is to keep oneself in the shoes of a villager, and then simplify the whole process. While giving choices is an important element of community centricity and must be continued, one may be cautious that there is no ‘choice overload’. In this context, circular by Chhattisgarh Government to promote twin pit latrine, and bar septic tank may be a good measure to nudge towards the right choice, and also escape various practical problems that beset a septic tank.
How do we effectively ‘anchor’ ODF ( open defecation free) status, and make it aspirational? Villagers from other villages may be taken on exposure visit to ideal  ODF villages, so that they feel it is possible. Natural leaders and sarpanches from villages who have made their villages ODF can be made to address their peers and decorated as Swachh Bharat ambassadors. The issue will have to be framed in a mental model that he can relate to easily such as stories of local champions who have done it.
The endowment effect in behavioural economics says that one values what one has more than what one does not have. Given this, he is likely to be influenced more by discussion on health of his child, or expenditure on health, or by appeal to his emotional brain; than by discussion on ‘toilets’ ! One is more averse to loss than to gain – again, this implies loss of health may be a more powerful behavioural change nudge than gain of an asset (toilet)!
What is the right timing for a person to spend on toilet ? Or occasion, so that he does it sooner rather than later ? For donation, it was found that donors could be nudged into donation when they were asked to donate a part of their annual income increase, than from their regular income. Can we then also nudge communities to spend when they typically have higher cash in hand, say after a harvest. Other occasions can also be used to ‘promote’ ODF events – such as Chhattisgarh recently used the pre-monsoon period to appeal to people to have ‘Sughar baarish’ – ‘clean rain’ – appealing to their sensitivity to difficulty in open defecation during rains and exhorting them to change that this monsoon by building toilets before the rains. These kind of promotions are used widely in the private sector – say ‘best buy’ offers in malls !
Last, but not the least, it may be useful to guard against things that may hamper achievement of results – while ‘posing’ that they are useful. One of these is ‘isomorphic mimicry’ – i.e. such interventions that give a false sense that things are happening, when they are not. Social media, though useful for cross sharing, may lead to false ‘feel good’ factor. The other factor to be guarded against is ‘preloading’ – creating too much pressure early on, without adequate preparation. This may lead to inappropriate results, and consequent despair.
Given the unique challenges of Swachh Bharat, the views expressed above are not absolute prescriptions, just some concepts that may be tried. At the end of the day, continuous trial and desire to win can be game clinchers.


Hands of majority of motivators in Fatehgarh Saheb rise to a question – ‘how many of you have taken shit in your hands’ ?

It is surprising. Hands rise without hesitation, with pride though. One would expect hands rise to holding a sweet in hand, their child in arms, or a precious thing, may be. But shit ?
Asked don’t they feel the disgust, they reply in negative. They say that this way, they are able to explain most convincingly the relation between shit, flies and food. A sarpanch ( village headman) seconds this – he says people get moved by this the most.
Places such as Fatehgarh Saheb are witnessing this change for the first time – a change where sanitation soldiers ( government officials, motivators etc.) are taking pride in their work. Reluctant to take on the shit-job earlier, they now feel that for the first time in their careers, people are treating them with respect, and they are getting the satisfaction of being part of real change. The villagers said they could not believe when these people said they would visit the village at 5 am in winters for nigrani – when they did, the village responded positively. Thousands will live for money, but millions will die for dignity and self-respect !
Punjab is a place with relatively high sanitation coverage. Prior to Swachh Bharat however, some men would not feel it odd to relieve themselves in the fields. One sarpanch said he was no exception. But now that he had been through the process and his village was ODF ( open defecation free), even if he was somewhere outside and needed to go for shit, he would hold on to find some public toilet in a Gurudwara or elsewhere, but not go outside! The villagers say motivators should continue to visit their village off and on to continue momentum.
Many of the motivators deployed here are either youth, selected through a screening or government officials at grass root level – a Junior engineer, pump operators etc. The junior engineer, unhappy when moved from water to toilet side, now proudly says he and his team have made one full block ODF. He also recounts difficulties encountered – a group of poor migrants from Rajasthan were not constructing, despite being given incentive, and forwarding lame excuses of lack of space etc. He caught hold of the one amongst them who was most adamant, and told him that a police complaint would be filed – upon which those people constructed. Another sarpanch mentioned that they actually levied a fine of Rs 2500 on a group of open defecators.
Work is starting with stopping open defecation, not constructing toilets ( which follow). Open defecators are told to cover their shit with soil, if they go out ( till they construct toilets). Motivators visit individually the houses of open defecators – women motivators are particularly effective since that shames the household.
Toilets are constructed/ got constructed by people, with government money flowing into their individual accounts. People are putting in their own funds (my toilet has to be better than my neighbour !) and constructing bathrooms along with toilets.
Some of the motivators are young girls. When someone asked them, how do their parents react to their leaving houses early mornings ( when it is still dark) for nigrani, one of them said – ‘we are not only triggering the villages, we are also influencing our parents !’
The programme is led in the district proactively by the DC ( Deputy Commissioner) S. Sangha. He has roped in all departments ( education, health etc.) , and taken political people on board. He says most of his meetings, irrespective of the subject, would start with the subject of open defecation and cleanliness. ‘ Jaisa raja, waisi praja’ ( Like king, like subjects) – the message from the top is quickly imbibed by all.
S. Jasbir Singh, Executive Engineer ( called Ex En sahebs in Punjab)’s designation is now ‘district sanitation officer’. In Punjab, the engineers working in the sanitation sector are now transforming into ‘social engineers’. The ‘union leaders’ are ably brought in the programme, their high energies channelised positively. As the government reaches the door step of people through this campaign, other issues of villages also tend to get solved better. An engineer said, when they went for ‘toilet work’ in the village, the village questioned them as to why the water supply scheme gave water for 1 hour only. The engineer looked at the whole issue – sought cooperation of the village; and the scheme is 24*7 today.
The programme in Punjab took off when the State Government got serious about it last year. Best officers were brought in to lead the programme. Mohhamad Ishfaq, a relatively junior in hierarchy, was made the State coordinator, given his impeccable sincerity, passion, hardwork and abilities. The State, with jugaad or otherwise, managed to pull along practical interventions with speed and scale – trainings were conducted across, existing cadres were mobilised, new motivators taken and given incentive linked with outcome, monitoring apps developed ( through engineering students at peanut price) to keep a check, convergence done with education department – books published for children with sanitation messages ( the close involvement of school children had a positive effect on overall education level as well as ascertained by the State through an independent Pratham Survey). The State improvised on the model of community approach ( in true spirit of flexibility) to suit their condition of high coverage. Demand generation and awareness were however taken as non – negotiable.
Fatehgarh Saheb is the place where two sahebzadas of Guru Gobind Singh ji gave supreme sacrifice. The poet, Maithillisharan Gupt has, on this incident has written:
Jis kul Jaati desh ke bachche 

de sakte hain balidan,
us desh ka vartman kuchh bhi ho

par bhavishya hai maha mahan”. His prophecy seems to be coming true.

There are challenges as well. The problem of kachra ( litter) and chhappar ( village ponds) ( both man- made ?) are staring in the face. On the shit issue too, one has to be watchful lest there should be slippage. The village leadership seems yet to take things in their hand and to reduce dependence on outside motivators. A collective feeling in the village has to take deeper roots to address other development issues.
However, the shift from pre-Swachh Bharat days, when the programme was contractor-driven with no focus on demand generation or community involvement is stark. It is not important where we stand; it is important the direction in which we move !

Name, shame; but not the children

The Swachh Bharat is a programme different from many. Rather than a typical government programme talking of subsidies, beneficiaries and target, it is taking the form of a social movement with its passionate soldiers working at ‘behaviour change’. Learning from its earlier avatars, Swachh Bharat has realised that if only we are able to convince people that open daefecation is disastrous for them, and that opeb daefecation by anyone in their village is equally disastrous for them, the rest of the job is easy.

However, this is easier said than done. Converting a programme from a sarkari programme to a social change movement first requires ‘unlearning’ on the part of implementers – coming out of the role of ‘providers’ of welfare and subsidies to ‘facilitators’ of development. Before working on the mindset of people; before attempting to change their age old practice of open daefecation; our own mindsets have to be worked upon !

Working on behaviour change is a science of sorts. Primarily, yes, it requires a basic nature of love for the people. But beyond that, one needs tools to bring about this behaviour change. Sermons, bhashans etc have been tried for long, but have had limited effect. The CLTS ( Community Led Total Sanitation) brought in refreshing ‘trigger tools’ that spread like wild fire and caught the imagination of facilitators and people alike. Practiced over many years in different milieu, these tools increased in number and variety. Practitioners across, challenged with the goal of ODF, improvised and developed innovative ideas. The whole idea was to use something that catches the imagination of people, facilitates sustained engagement with them in an interesting way and is effective in the sense of nudging communities into action.

Naming and shaming developed as a tool for behaviour change. The original purist form may have been a ‘walk of shame’ where the facilitator took villagers through the site of open daefecation, walking through the shit, even standing there and discussing. This was a major change from ‘sober’ public meetings held in Gram Panchayats or public places. And proved useful. The shaming thus developed as a tool widely used.

What may be realised is that this shaming was usually collective shaming. Even if names were taken in the collective shaming discussion, it was with a view to collectively improve, and not shame a few. The skill of the faciltator ensured that the naming and shaming was ‘unifying’ not divisive.

As the work is scaling up, two facts become relevant : One is a subconscious timeline pressure to achieve results quickly. And two, there are constraints in reaching out good trainings across the country. Timelines are important, since we cannot continue with the blot for too long, and have to work in a Mission mode – start to finish. On trainings, novel ways such as virtual trainings are being considered to reach out fast. However, irrespective of these, what is happening also is that implementers across the country are devising novel ways to influence behaviours. Many of these are innovative and enriching the pool of ‘trigger tools’. An example is ODF Olympics in district Harda, Madhya Pradesh, where the district administration organised sports competitions only between the ODF villages. The non-ODF villages were not allowed to participqte in these popular sports ! This is also naming and shaming of sorts; however it is again ‘collective’ naming and shaming and therefore still acceptable ( ? less harmful) .

Another type of naming/ shaming is also emerging at some places. Somewhere it takes the form of social restrictions, somewhere linked with law to deny benefits to those who do not own a toilet ( in Haryana and many States, one cannot contest a Panchayat election, unless one has a toilet at home- this has been upheld as a reasonable restriction by none other than the Supreme Court in Rajbala case), and some places extended to schools. In Andhra Pradesh, there is a ‘self -respect’ campaign, wherein in schools the names of children who have toilets is written separately from those wjo don’t have it. In some districts of Rajasthan, in schools, the children who have toilets are ‘positively discriminated’ by giving them special bags etc.

It is difficult to judge the utility and impact ( positive or negative) of these interventions, primarily because they are all contextual. However, some general impressions can be drawn. The foremost remains that naming and shaming, if used, be primarily collective, and not individualistic. The whole idea is to propagate sanitation as a collective good and not an individual good. In case where individual naming/ shaming is done, ( if at all it has to be done!)  it makes more sense if the naming/ shaming tools are left to insiders i. e. the villagers themselves, and not outsiders ( read bureaucracy). One also has to be watchful that the naming/ shaming does not promote exclusion of specific castes/ communities etc.

Self respect

As far as children are concerned, it has proved very effective to involve them in campaigns, collectively. Children in groups, as vaanar sena, going from house to house, asking elders to construct toilets ( Zid karo abhiyaan, Madhya Pradesh) seems a very potent tool. However, anything divisive amongst children, such as separately naming those children who do not have a toilet, or rewarding those who have one, may be evaluated carefully, since child psychology is sensitive, and since a child may not be able to influence decision in his/her house, despite wanting to have a toilet.

Overall, the talisman may be – anything that is unifying ( resulting in the overall cumulative good, all adopt good practice, there is no coercion or heart-burn, the process brings all people together) is good; anything divisive, rethink !

Be kind, as a poor man !

We have a cycle wallah close to our colony. He lives with one or two more people on the pavement, making a small hut, around 6 by 3 feet, that is his residence, kitchen and shop all in one. Last time i went to his shop, i asked him where i could get a good cycle pump. He had said he would get me one – a more durable and quality one within a week.

This time he had got one, and he showed to me. It was indeed a better quality one, than the one typically sold in markets and one which i found did not last long. He said this one costed Rs 160. I gave him Rs 200, and he was returning Rs 40. I was surprised, that he did not expect any money extra than what he would have paid ! What about the cost of his effort of procuring it ? Does anyone, any businessman do this, even for known ones, leave alone strangers? He showed later that the pump had a printed price of Rs. 299, and wondered why people overpriced products so much and fooled other people.

I looked at his torn shirt. I also noticed a younger worker in his shop for the past few days. He was deaf and dumb, no less skillful in his job. Earlier, i thought he was the deaf and dumb boy who was with this man for long; but realised he was another one (? younger brother of the other one). I do not know if these two were his children or not. But certainly, he had passed on his skills to these two, so that they would survive.

The elder deaf and dumb was inside the hut, eating food. The cycle wallah in the meanwhile told  a visitor ( ? acquaintance ) if he had eaten. He said “kuch khaya hai”. The cycle wallah said – ” khana bana hai, kha lo”; seeing that the visitor was not sure if there was food for him as well, the cycle wallah said – “khana hai, sab ke liye!”. Do we welcome an uninvited person over a meal ?

The cycle wallah’s hands were bleeding. He showed me, saying a rat or a chuchunder might have bit him during the night, and he has called some vaid to give him an injection. ” Vaid aata he hoga !”

Number 2s, number 3s – they’re important

In IAS, one normally works at number 1 position, at least in the initial 10 years or so. A CEO, Zilla Panchayat, a Municipal Commissioner, a DM ( Collector – the most enviable post!) offers one immense opportunity to work in leadership position. You think, you plan, you implement. Your word is an order, your wish taken seriously. You have opportunity even to go wrong and make mistakes with bona fide intentions. You test out the waters, as none other. You learn, you are amazed and your capabilities surprise you. Many of those may be capabilities of the chair, or they supplement yours. The result can be awe-inspiring to the common man. In less than 6 months, you see the fruits of your efforts. Numerous people helped, improved systems, motivated teams, and improvement in whichever sector you put your heart and soul into. You are believed to possess a magic wand, that can correct everything.
The love and satisfaction one gets in these posts may dissuade one to take up ‘dry’ Secretariat posts of deputies – a Deputy Secretary, a Director, an OSD. Loss of personal comforts vis a vis a district is considered a smaller loss – a bigger loss is the loss of ‘freedom’ to lead, to put your (whacky) ideas to test, absence of regular accolades from people, and a very close relation ( closer than your wife!) with your boss ! Sector and content begins to take a backseat – they say ‘don’t choose your Ministry, choose your boss!’ One feels one can contribute ( only) as much, as the space given to him by his boss. Within the sector also, priorities of the boss will supercede on his understanding or his priorities of what is best for the sector. These are the ‘common’ understandings ?myths); and perhaps that is why, many young officers may not prefer coming to these Secretarial posts. Except for few States such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, officers posted in Secretariat in early years is an exception, not the norm.
The reality is different. The beauty of IAS is the versatility it provides to do different things at different times. And there is a merit, in fact, lot of merit in one taking up assignments of Deputt Secretary/ Director etc. Firstly, the system stands to gain, because a young officer having spent some years in the field is equipped well to understand policy and framing programmes. His boss, with greater experience, is much more knowledgeable; but is so tied up with number of meetings, and other urgent works, that he does not have time for dirty detailing. He needs therefore, an intelligent person, to whom he can explain the broad idea for further detailing. The Secretarial service officers, who have their own strength in many other ways, may lack this ability to comprehend the idea and produce a proper convincing document with adequate justification. The young IAS officer, fresh from field experience is much more likely to correlate policy to implementation challenges and suggest suitable changes. Thus not only does he act on guidance of his senior, he can also proactively suggest measures that if logical and useful, are very likely to be picked up by his seniors and get adopted. A colleague remarked that close to 90%  of what emerges as policy is a Deputy Sectetary/ Director’s idea is not far from truth. In fact, the seniors provide Deputy Secretary/ Directors a good shielding space – by keeping them away from unnecessary but unavoidable meetings – so that they can concentrate on productive work. Secondly, the Secretarial work being concerned with the entire State or national scale exposes young officer to issues that he did not face personally in his district – and widens his canvass. He can both fine tune his convictions and learnings through this, as well as expose the rest to something considered doable by him based on his experience.
As far as the extent to which he can contribute is concerned, it is a bit personal also. Someone said that to be efficient, one must learn to consider himself one level higher, in a bona fide sense i.e. to take higher level deciaions, even some risks. One can do this more easily at number 2/ number 3 positions, rather than number 1; since you are shielded.
Finally, as a senior officer remarked – IAS is the best job, if you can learn not to play centre forward every time !

दूधयाचे सरपंच तुम्ही राष्ट्राचे धोरण थरविले (O Sarpanch of Dudha, you helped determine the national policy)

The budget announcement of 2016 included this – ‘In order to continue this (Swachh Bharat) momentum, priority allocation from Centrally Sponsored Schemes will be made to reward villages that have become free from open defecation’.

This was a very special moment. It brought back memories of 10 years ago, when I was working in Jalna district in Total Sanitation campaign. One day, I visited one of the early (open defecation free) ODF villages in that district, Dudha in Mantha taluka of Jalna. The picture of Dudha sarpanch is clear before me. A short heighted person, little stout, with a Gandhi topi, and with a heart of a champion, a natural leader, a public-spirited person, who had taken lead in and persuaded his entire village to become ODF. After he had shown me his village, he mentioned that water in his well had almost dried, and people were feeling water scarcity. With folded hands, and moist eyes, but a smiling face, he requested me if a well could be sanctioned for his village. I got a jolt of kinds! Here was a man, a person who should be worshipped, a person, who keeping the public good first, did something that was very rare in those days, and pulled his village out of misery of centuries. And he had still to ask for something, again not for himself, but for his village. I felt he deserved it as a right, much more than anyone else, and we sanctioned him a water supply scheme then and there. Here is how I documented the incident 10 years ago in my book ‘Beyond sanitation’,  an incident that was to become an important learning for me in my early years :

Dudha is a small village in Mantha Block, which had the prestige of being first in the district in Sant Gadge Baba Abhiyaa. When we visited the village, we found a tremendous zeal in Murli, sarpanch, to make his village developed. There was also a very positive environment in the village …no factions, no false complaints. The village was in dire need of a well. Most schemes go to villages which are not necessarily the ones needing them the most; and certainly not the ones who would implement them in the most efficient and transparent way. Dudha made us realise that there was a need for ‘positive incentivisation’ for such villages. Our Zilla Parishad passed a resolution to consider ODF villages on priority while selection for various developmental programmes. It works like this. In ODF villages, the positive energies of people are unleashed and they are capable of implementing all other development programmes in a much more transparent and efficient way. The best thing is that everyone in the village begins to think about the village as their own, and hence the best chance for success arises. The interdependence thus begins to be developed not only within the village but also between the villages on the one side and Government on the other. It is not ‘You do it (for us), we shall give you …’ philosophy but ‘because you have done this, you need to be appreciated’ philosophy. There is a thin but a definite difference between the two. It is a win-win situation.” 

As I learn more about the community processes, I realised that the most ‘purist’ community and participative process is where one does not link it to any extrinsic ‘carrot’ or ‘stick’. Programatically however, there was a definite need to encourage the ‘good’.  As the programme was upscaled in Maharashtra, due recognition of grass root champions began to  decrease. There was a feedback from sarpanches of some districts that while they took so much effort for their villages, there was not even ‘a pat on the back’. Therefore, the logic to institutionalise positive incentivisation, especially if work is to be done on scale gained strength.

In South Korea, we learnt about the Saemaul Undong, the new village movement. Sameaul Undong, meaning New Village Movement, is an approach adopted by South Korea in 1970s to involve the rural community in their own development.  It is based on the three principles of diligence, self-help and cooperation.   In this programme, the government identified community leaders with voluntary spirit and gave them basic training in leadership.  These leaders then identified certain projects for their community, for which the Government provided basic support in the form of materials.  In the process, the communities not only became self-reliant, but also learnt to plan and implement holistic developmental programmes on their own. Saemaul Undong, in a way was about positive incentivisation. The philosophy was  “ Why should we give street lights to a village, if the villagers were to sit beneath them and drink, and even break them !” But if the community took one step, Government would respond with nine steps.

With this basic conviction, when I joined Swachh Bhart, I mooted this idea. The conviction was strengthed by winessing that champion Collectors in many States were already linking up other small schemes – a watershed work, a community toilet, cleaning up pond, a water supply scheme – in ODF villages and responding more favourably to demands of such villages. These demands, such as request for a teacher in the village school,  small from administration’s point of view (in its coldness and vastness) can be very critical for the village. And the Collector/CEO, Zilla Panchayat are usually in a position to address those (thankfully), despite the ‘guidelines’ for each scheme. The idea was picked up well, and our Minister wrote to Chief Ministers of all the States, appealing to them to prioritise other development schemes in ODF villages. Our Minister also wrote to all the Central Ministries concerned to prioritise their schemes in ODF villages.  When it comes to linking schemes of health, or child development, this linkage has greater logic. Shri Agnihorti, Retd Secretary and nutrition expert, calls the battle of malnutrition a cricket match in which you need all factors right. If one addresses few factors – good supplementary nutrition, health check up, but leaves the rest – poor sanitation and open defecation, the match cannot be won.

This is the kind of convergence that is required. Let each Ministry/Department do more of what they are doing – whether it is roads, or water supply, or housing or water conservation, or agriculture extension – in villages that are showing the courage and success to think together as a community, and work together to shed off a century old practice. It will certainly help the other Departments as well, since these villages will implement those schemes much better. And it will also encourage more and more villages to become ODF. Let this positive discrimination roll out !

Of course, caution has to be that one does not trigger a village to become ODF since they will get a road! A village has to become ODF for the sake of their own health.  Another caution is that the more deserving ones of those schemes do not lose out. But we are only talking of prioritization, which means first amongst the equally deserving. The enabling environment has to be such that rewards the performers.

Thanks Murli!

Notes from West Bengal

Electronic transfer of funds : the State is rolling out a system of electronic transfer of funds, with a single account at the State level. This will solve issue of unparked funds in some districts. Issue has been raised by other States, including Assam and UP. This may be encouraged.
Involvement of CM and DMs: After Nadia declared ODF, the CM has prioritised sanitation in the development agenda and directly reviews DM on its progress. A DM is able to take many courageous decisions ( allowing construction of toilets even on encroached lands, Nadia), roping in all stakeholders etc. DM s are also able to find innovative solutions for issues such as non Baseline survey toilets ( through MGNREGA etc), providing access of toilet to Anganwadis ( by shifting private Anganwadis to buildings that have a toilet, linking school toilets to anganwadis etc.) A DM can also have ‘big vision’ for time bound outcome. District leadership is sine qua non for Swachh Bharat.
Sanitary Mart model: the basic model of West Bengal (? Drawing from Midnapore) is the supply driven sanitary mart model. Through strengthening of this supply chain, districts have been able to achieve saturation fast. In districts with high literacy, impression is that convenience ensures high usage of these toilets as well. The presence of high incentive however, lures a person to have more toilets, with say family splitting, and also a person to want a pucca toilet, even if he has a safe sanitary but kutcha toilet of earlier scheme. If incidentally this leads to some community getting a pucca toilet earlier, this may lead to different connotations. At some point of time, the village/ GP will have to say ‘no’ to new additions and decide that it is now their responsibility to not allow any open defecation and provide toilets themselves to any new families etc. The State is also now allowing an individual household to construct their own toilet; however it is yet to be practiced on scale.
The GP size being very big in West Bengal, and institutional structure being very strong in GPs ( own engineer, secretary, asst secretary etc), and roping in of all village functionaries ( including ASHA, Anganwadi workers) – districts are achieving saturation fast. Solves the sanitation issue faster; may miss on the intangible gains of a community thinking of themselves as a community and unleashing a positive energy amongst them, and making them more prepared/ responsive for various other development works, and feeling a collective pride. The behaviour change is however increasingly being stressed. Few people (NGOs) from all districts have been given basic training in community approaches, and it has percolated in varying extent to the grass roots, more so where DMs are personally championing the same. Understand in Malda and Cooch Bihar, the model is a more purist community model. Learnt that in Malda, Nirmal Utsav is celebrated once the village becomes ODF and the district administration carries plethora of schemes/ camps there. This positive incentivisation – after- the village becomes ODF – and not luring them before, may help the programme. DM Birbhum for example sanctioned a submersible pump for water to the temple committee who had donated their land for row toilets of poor families. The extreme purist approach even detest this linkage, maintaining that motive to become ODF has to be of the people, by the people, for the people.
Clearly, there are multiple approaches and as West Bengal and India inches closer to Swachhta, learning along the way from each other may be very useful. Sometimes even within the same State, districts may be unaware of models in other districts, and it may be helpful if State facilitates cross sharing between districts ( and even to other States) on a regular basis ( workshop, Video Conference, sharing on website, most importantly cross visits).
Individual incentive: at least in the richer districts, asked how many people are such, who cannot construct toilets of their own funds, one response was , ” Aisa to Ek Bhi nahin hoga ! ” In Assam, and Rajasthan, loosely asked, response to this question was ‘At least 90% can’. The SBM-G allows States to decide how they want to disburse household incentive – individually, or collectively to community after village becomes ODF. And they can take a decision that takes them fastest to sustainable ODF ! (A National workshop in Chhattisgarh is being scheduled to share their experiences in this regard with other States). A strong ODF verification mechanism of the State can help State choose the best strategy.
Involvement of religious leaders : is one of the many efforts of Nadia in involving stakeholders . The Imam of Nadia, when called upon by the DM Salim to join this work, felt this  ” hum to saalon se wait Kar rahe the is kaam ka; pakizgi ki hifaazat to Hamara hi kaam tha, aur district administration hamesha hamare saath tha, raat ko das bane bhi hamein saath chalne ko kaha gaya . . ” Wow ! Nadia also brought in wonderful convergence. NRLM was used to increase the number and skills of SHGs to develop them as marts. The fringe difficult areas were addressed – brick kilns, dhabas. Salim brilliantly involved political class in his work by triggering them, comparing situation of Bangladesh with them, and developing a common vision of ‘why can’t we?’ Nadia, Indore makes one rethink, do we really need five years to become ODF – why not a year, why not two years? All DMs charged together, can do it in two years ? Will it be a good policy in terms of reaching saturation fast, working like mad, a revolution? Or is 5 years also a slowly sustainably emerging model?
Vulnerable: are the SCs, STs, minorities more difficult to ‘convince’ ? Or does this vary with approach ? Whatever the approach ( especially in non community approach) , how do we ensure that the the gaps reduce, at least not increase ! Rohit Gupta, DM Udaipur and UNICEF, Rajasthan are scheduling a workshop on ‘sanitation in tribal areas’ where the issue should be discussed in greater details.
Clearly, there is a need to understand, promote and replicate electronic transfer of funds to address issue of unparked funds. Decision on baseline to reflect true picture is also required. Issue of defunct/ outside baseline toilets through MGNREGA may be an easy route and utilised. Nadia, Indore may also make one rethink, do we really need five years to become ODF – why not a year, why not two years? All DMs charged together, can do it in two years ? Will it be a good policy in terms of reaching saturation fast, working like mad, a revolution? Or is 5 years also a slowly sustainably emerging model ?

The Wealth of Cities

Chicago , Boston

(Written during my 6 week Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S. in 2012)


The first two observations of a person visiting Chicago the first time are likely to be- ‘it’s very cold’ and ‘oh my God’. The second reaction is usually to the sky scrapers.

Chicago brings back to focus cities. In our part of the world, there is ( I don’t know rightly or wrongly) an over emphasis- romanticism- about everything rural. Especially if you have been a privileged urban middle class person, who has ‘arrived’ at the stage where you want to ‘give back’ to the society, you are likely to turn to the villages, which Baba Saheb Ambedkar[1] called ‘dens of ignorance’. The cities are ignored, probably for one of the three reasons- one, the involvement and satisfaction of working in the rural areas never gives you a chance of practicing urban development; the cities seem to be ‘mature’ to take care of themselves; and cities seem so complex, that you don’t want to be sucked into the mess.

The pigeon has to open its eyes.[2]The issues and importance of urban areas in India, as everywhere else can be ignored only at everyone’s peril. Each city is different, but there are commonalities. The cities contribute most to the Nation’s GDP. Urbanisation is inevitable in the development cycle of a Nation. So you have to think about sustaining these entities. The components of these sustainability widely understood are- safety, commerce, housing, transportation, education etc. And you plan for those (aka write the history- you can be a Portland Oregon or a Las Vegas!). Cities manage these affairs, and plan 20-30 years ahead. They want to be ‘liveable’. And be strengths of the economy/Nation; not their ‘problems’. Do they? And how, if they do?

New Urbanism

John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee and President of Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) says cities cannot be built on pity. Thus, he abhors grants from Federal government. He believes that cities are organic entities that have always existed irrespective of the governments.(Future belongs to the city-states!). Thus the role of city government should be minimal. To provide some basic services- of a high quality and low cost. CNU also promotes mixed use neighbourhoods and criss cross streets rather than highways.

The questions of how good is density; gentrification; sprawls vs. urban growth boundaries all widen the thinking horizon about managing cities.

CNU is yet another example of good advocacy being an important part of the public policy process here.

Less and clear regulation (fewer barriers to entrepreneurship)

Edward Glaeser, urban economist from Harvard believes that lesser and clearer regulation (restrictive!) will go a long way in unlocking the potential of Indian cities. The second focus point is clean drinking water and sanitation. The third is good education. He also believes that infrastructure may be funded from the users (drivers pay for the highways!) rather than the general funds; and principles like ‘congestion pricing’ can be applied early-on. He also cautions against wrong prioritisation of issues to be addressed.

Urban Agriculture

Thanks to advocacy by groups such as ‘growing power’, sustainable food is now a key goal of 30-year strategic plan of Chicago. Growing Power is a non-profit, initiated by Will Allen, an African American farmer and a former player, working in demonstrating and carrying out best practices in producing food. His daughter, Erika Allen, an artist by education, has contributed her skills of discovering solutions in different ways (something that art meant to her earlier). They are using it as a medium to address social justice[3]! The success of Growing Power is due to a) passion of its founder b) nobility of cause (hunger and its social ramifications) c) collaborations and d) accommodativeness of the center and e) grabbing the opportunity (city generates lots of waste).


Edward Glaeser

  1. Ease FSI restrictions in Mumbai; charge builders for infrastructure; even sprawls will be a pressure on infrastructure
  2. Slums- go slow; property rights; allow higher densities (planning rules); clean water and sanitation; capitalise on the social entrepreneurship; cohesiveness asset
  3. City govt- address crime, disease, congestion
  4. City autonomy; ?private cities
  5. Housing- make easier; less and clear regulation; direct ok- but phase out-transitional; private developer model-corruption-may not be the best; vouchers; ways to avoid disincentivising income growth (poor people pay 30% of their income as their contribution!)
  6. less and clear regulation- this will address corruption as well
  7. India immense wealth in next 50 yrs; don’t lock up resources that may become worthless later; temporary phase things may have to be done
  8. Manufacturing will move to services quickly for example
  9. Highways-Yes- buses (BRT); Congestion pricing; drivers pay
  10. Civic Engagement- not necessarily top down; can build in the education system
  11. Green- caution-marginal benefits efforts; build in education

Congress for New Urbanism John Norquist

  1. Don’t overbuild your highways


[1] The great Indian leader who played an important role in drafting the Indian Constitution; he advocated equal rights for the depressed classes

[2] The pigeon is said to close eyes seeing a cat, because that way, it feels the danger does not exist.

[3] They call it GFJI- Growing Food and Justice Initiative

Purpose in Life

The Unconference at Boston

(Written during the 6 week Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S. in 2012)

We loved the fact that it was called ‘un’-conference. It was an occasion, perhaps, to figure out things (in continuum), to be happy (in continuum).

Purpose in life

Zeeshan set me thinking, when he asked me the other day, what was the purpose of my life. Did (? do) not know it. I had to think about it. When I looked back at  life, I realised that someone else directs. Things have happened to me that I did not really plan. There were hardly options. (This is not necessarily bad!). Because we always saw parents (especially my mother) working very hard (she has travelled five hours each day, using state transport buses) to go and teach in a college 120 km from the place where we stayed), studying was the only option. And we were always the ‘toppers’ (a not-so-likeable creed). Because I was not good in Maths; and because I was good in cramming (how many chambers the hearts of animals have!), I became a doctor. The English language, debating, patience were inherited from my mother. I was the gold medallist in medical school as well. I liked surgery more than medicine. Towards the end of medical school, I had begun to kind of think- I would become a cardiac surgeon. Again, it was not something much from the heart, just a liking for precision.

Something happened just around that time; and I don’t know the answer till this date to this most asked question- why did I leave medicine and join civil service. Some influences around that time (why did they happen just around that time? He knows) made me take the decision to leave medicine (something that had taken hard work of 5 years!) and appear for the civil services exam. The reasons are unknown to me. I just took a decision, with a trust.

When I entered the ‘bureaucracy’, I gave it 100%. I remember someone telling me I would be very unfit for bureaucracy, because bureaucrats have to be very ‘shrewd’ and ‘clever’. I smeared the soil of Maharshtra, when I first landed there on my forehead, calling her my karma-bhoomi[1]. Circumstances demanded that I concentrate more directly on ‘rural sanitation’, because my subordinate officer was transferred out, leaving me with no choice to pay more and direct attention to this (one of the fourteen subjects I was to handle) subject. Very soon, we found ourselves leading a movement, a social movement. It no longer remained a government programme. Government officials, elected officials, women, media, religious people all embraced and infused life into the movement. We travelled extensively in most of the 1000 villages where we worked, spending nights in the ‘clean’ villages (to spread the message of cleanliness). The villages became my home, and the villagers my family. The love of people was invaluable. I have never been richer.

Jalna became a name known nationally and internationally in sanitation. I got to learn facilitation techniques in sanitation (called community-led total sanitation) and applied those principles in our area. The learning was immense. I was hailed as a ‘sanitation champion’. Invitations came to us from Pakistan, UK. People from Bangladesh, Gates Foundation visited us. The Jalna story became a case study in many national/international sanitation seminars.

On a personal front, the love and blessings of people made us sail through difficult health times for Nidhi, my wife. We were blessed with Ram and Lakshman.

Jalna also proved a blessing for work in education and health. At the end of our three years in the district, we moved up in education from amongst the lowest in the State[2] to the top (in 7th grade exams) and 3rd (in 4th grade exams). Many of our innovations were replicated at the State level. Our teachers devised a date wise home-work books for children. We sat with all the 5000 teachers in groups, holding day long discussions and motivation and cross learning sessions. We could instil pride in their hearts of being teachers. Their potential, unleashed was breath taking. They inspired me. The love for people also guided us towards innovations, public-private partnerships etc. in public health. UNICEF evaluated our work in the district and concluded that the infant mortality rate in the two blocks studied reduced by close to 50% in two years.

I moved to Raigad as Collector in 2008-09, where I found myself embroiled in what media termed as the ‘1st referendum of India’. In battles which were fought in Courts, government and streets, the people emerged victorious against one of the biggest Corporates of India, which was to do (if it happened) the biggest SEZ of India. I was a villain in the eyes of few, but a hero in the eyes of many. I was not biased; the satisfaction of having done what I felt legal is immense. The strength came from unknown source.

I was transferred to Mumbai prematurely. Mumbai seemed tough in the beginning. Being a field person, I was not too happy doing ‘files’. However, there were learnings, that helped me later in my work. Surprisingly, the situation which I felt was the most difficult for me earned me the best possible assessment from seniors!  Realised, it is foolish to judge/pre-empt His plans.

Have worked thereafter in a city and am in Delhi now. Our city became the first city in India to try the CLTS approach for solid waste management. The slum dwellers did a ‘dharna’[3] against my transfer to Delhi. But someone told me, I had to move on.

When I look back, I feel I did nothing I had planned for, or had a vision for. I did things, opportunities which came my way (were sent my way). Hence, I am at a loss to have a vision/purpose for my life. The only purpose, I could think of was:

“God has some plans for me. I do not know what those plans are. The purpose of my life is not to resist those plans.’’


I also want to share the churning going on within me. I do not know if it is temporary or more significant. I do not know if it is pure romanticism or more substantial. I do not know if this is just a strong discomfort (of being away from field) or some voice. IAS has provided me the exposure, challenges and opportunities of public work, which Shrikar and I believe are unparalleled. Given that, it may be a phase (cooling off), before I can jump into something more meaningful direct action. However, there is also an irritation that any substantial change cannot be bound by time, procedures, and meetings. The freedom of decision making and prioritisation enjoyed in the earlier years of our service may (am not sure) diminish as we rise the ladder. And this scares me. Sometimes, I want to be free, do what I want, with and for the people. There is evidence however, that power facilitates your abilities to do good. And then there are arguments and counter arguments. For now, believing in my purpose of life (‘dharma’), I have managed to calm myself. Whatever has to happen will happen, anyway.


I must congratulate Eisenhower Fellowships for pushing collaborations and consequential outcomes. Boston provided a platform for ideas and convergence around ideas. Shrikar and I were kind of pleasantly surprised, because each one of those ideas fitted our job. Hence, the idea of an approach, a ‘happy living’ calming topic came to me. And we were ‘happy’ discussing it. The passion and ‘acceptance’ theory of happiness may seem contrary, but they may not be. I do not understand this enough.

I am very happy to take home few friendships. I am  deeply impressed, inspired and amazed by knowing my co-fellows, some of them closely.

I have also been fortunate to meet some of my friends, with whom I studied 13 years ago in India, who resided in the cities where I had fellowship appointments. Knowing them now as successful Americans made me feel so proud.

I have also met some amazing people/organisations as part of fellowship appointments. Besides the general inspiration and reinforcement of beliefs, I gathered newer approaches, learning points, ideas; which at the right time shall be useful. They may call for collaborations, if required. That this will happen, if this has to, I am sure.


[1] The land of karma (your actions)

[2] Jalna stood amongst the lowest States as per the Human Development Index Report, 2002, Maharashtra

[3] Non-cooperation demonstration; earlier done by tribals in Raigad when I was transferred out