The excellently named Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (R.I.C.E) recently published an equally excellently named survey – the SQUAT (Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends) survey. Based on the findings of this survey conducted in five north Indian states, R.I.C.E calls for a latrine use revolution - since the bottleneck is not the non-availability of a latrine (since even those with a government latrine are not using them), nor is it lack of funds (since far poorer countries and communities have built and used latrine). It is an issue of messaging around hygiene, towards which we need to set our firm focus.
My first job in the development sector was with an NGO, Gram Vikas in Odisha and my experience there has shaped many of my core beliefs about working in this sector. At the core of Gram Vikas' work was the conviction that the 'poor can and will pay for quality services'. So when I think toilets (not latrines – and there is a key difference in the definition), I often use the 'quality' lens and make the argument about how the usage of physical facilities installed by projects has a direct link with what community perception of what counts as good quality. This also has a strong link with the extent to which they feel a sense of ownership for the facility.
The SQUAT survey finds that most people who own a government latrine do not use it. No surprises there! In most public places in India, toilets are amongst the most disgusting of places. In rural areas, toilets constructed under the Total Sanitation Campaign were models for how a toilet should not be constructed – unscrupulous contractors, incomplete and/or shabby structures and the absolute lack of community engagement during the process.
Although the budget allocations have gone up substantially under successive government water and sanitation programmes, the system of constructing toilets has largely remained the same. At the same time, in places where village-level local bodies have been engaged in motivating communities and facilitating construction, the pace of release of funds by district administrations has gone down drastically. In sum, the sanitation campaign in India is a hollow rhetoric, with small islands of success – some driven by enthusiastic state or local governments and some, by NGOs.
What we should have learnt from our collective experience is this - no one is going to use a poorly constructed facility that is air-dropped on them. If there no way to improve the quality of toilets being constructed (by governments or NGOs or Panchayats), it is better not to construct one at all and instead, focus solely on behaviour change communication.
But will that suffice in altering the preferences of the SQUAT survey respondents? On this, my views differ (very) slightly from the recommendations contained in the SQUAT report. The report suggests that construction should be a lesser part of a successful policy package. This, in my view, detracts from the importance of actually constructing a decent and usable toilet in the first place. While a policy that promotes latrine construction without promoting use is pointless, a policy that promotes use without offering a quality toilet is likely to be not only pointless, but continue to put even more numbers of people off toilet-use. So a policy package for sanitation would have to give equal importance to the quality of infrastructure and behaviour change.
In this budget, the government has indicated a commitment to ‘toilets’. If indeed the government is committed to spending the kind of funds it has set aside for sanitation – and we have to accept the reality that unlike the rest of the world where subsidies for toilets have been junked, in India that ship has long sailed – we have to find ways to change the behaviours and attitudes of government officials who take a completely callous attitude towards the quality of structures these funds deliver. Toilet construction is a simple engineering exercise. However, what goes into actually constructing a toilet in rural areas and the process by which it needs to be constructed is always underestimated. If 78% of the SQUAT survey respondents aspire for decent toilets, it should alert us in more ways than one. If governments are ready to put down funds for construction as a social investment, communities need to find ways to match the government assistance with contributions of their own. Again, there are such tried and tested partnership models out there. Thus, it is not about what appears on print in this budget – it is about what follows in terms of action. If anything, the ‘one toilet per second’ approach is definitely not going to work!
While there is no denying that behaviour change communication is important and needs the attention of policymakers, if we start assuming that getting construction right is simple, we would be making a serious mistake. Decades of rural sanitation programmes have left a vast majority of the rural poor disgusted by the quality of infrastructure thrust upon them by apathetic outsiders and they have clearly voted with their feet, by opting to walk away from these shabby toilets. While we need to bring them back, we have to make sure what we are leading them to is a decent and dignified place.
Photograph by Prashant Panjiar, available on Flickr
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