Sanitation: Think Local

On India’s Independence Day 2014, Prime Minister Modi proclaimed his commitment to honor Mahatma Gandhi with a massive sanitation initiative to be completed by Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019. This theme of cleanliness has been a consistent undercurrent in Modi’s rhetoric, finally surging to the forefront with the official announcement of Swachh Bharat (“Clean India”) on October 2, 2014.

Eight months in, the administration has built over 5.8 million toilets. This is a significant step for a country where 48% of the population practices open defecation, and progress towards the goal of toilets in 60 million homes by 2019. However, many new toilets stand nonfunctional or unused. In order to address this problem, the central government began sending out officials in February 2015 to record toilet usage across the nation.

Yet centralized data collection is not enough.The problem lies in a failure to bring local actors into the conversation on implementation of the sanitation program and to connect with those who are meant to use the new waste management systems.

Reasons vary for why many Indians opt not to use toilets, but the vast majority boil down to either poor program execution or ingrained attitudes.

In Chennai, The Corporation of Chennai installed modular toilets early into the Clean India program, but failed to provide water or sewage connections for them. Unconnected home latrines fill up and their users are uneducated on how to empty them, so they return to the fields. Some prefer to not even begin using toilets near their homes at all, in anticipation of having to empty them.

Government programs have also failed to adequately provide for the needs of women, for whom access to safe toilets is a critical issue. While Modi has called for toilets “for the dignity for our mothers and sisters,” there has been little substantive follow through. There is significant asymmetry in both the quality and accessibility of toilets for women. In Mumbai, most public toilets charge women a fee, while use of men’s urinals is free. In schools, many girls feel uncomfortable using the toilets because they are in the open or facing public spaces.

Even where the government has provided adequate toilet facilities, many prefer not to use them. A fall 2014 survey of 5 North Indian states revealed that open urination and defecation is still a deeply-rooted preference. Some consider the practice an important component of a “wholesome, healthy virtuous life.”

The cleaning of waste is also seen as socially degrading, in part due to the task's association with the untouchable caste. Additionally, the emphasis placed on toilets for women has played into existing gender bias and bred the idea that toilets are not for men.

Outside of cultural considerations, officials cite a lack of education and responsibility as major contributors to the problem of sanitation. MP Shashi Tharoor explains, “We are a nation full of people who live in immaculate homes where we bathe twice a day, but think nothing of...urinating and defecating in public, because those spaces are not ‘ours.’”

In light of these obstacles, several municipal governments have taken sanitation into their own hands.

Chennai has opted for a tech-based method, with the installation of 348 toilets beginning in June 2015. This will include a number of electronically operated bio-toilets as well as facilities prepared specifically for women. The Corporation of Chennai aims to clean up areas most affected by sanitation health risks, building toilets in known public urination and defecation areas and including automatic flush after 5 uses, for those unfamiliar with toilet etiquette.

Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation plans a less sophisticated initiative. AMC will offer one rupee for each use of a public toilet; authorities even plan to identify repeat public urinators and defecators and personally offer them this alternative. This initiative will first be piloted in 67 of the city’s 300 public restrooms, mostly in slum areas. It is based on a program in Darechowk in Kathmandu, Nepal, which eliminated open defecation in 78 communities. Conversely, some communities have begun charging fines for open defecation.

It remains to be seen on what scale these community efforts will be effective. However, it is clear that local actors closer to the problem have more space for useful observation, education of users, and adaptive approaches. Perhaps by decentralizing sanitation efforts and involving non-profit and even private sector partners, India may see a Swachh Bharat even sooner than 2019.