Swacch Bharat campaign, The Great Indian Dirt Drama

Swacch Bharat campaign, The Great Indian Dirt Drama
Swacch Bharat campaign, The Great Indian Dirt Drama
Written by:

Jayashree | The News Minute | October 12, 2014 | 11.21 pm IST


Toilets are the “in” thing. There is a haze of toilet-building and eagerness to make India Clean overnight. Flagged off by the Prime Minister, fuelled by department frenzy, visualized by famous personalities tagged by the PM, applauded by Bill Gates and spread through placard-holding captive school children, it seems India has never attempted to be cleaner or show more frenzy on this issue, all of it with broom in hand, mind you! 

The international media is in a tizzy as well. Much better copy than a Mars Mission, “India is said to have the world’s worst sanitation record” reads an international news agency copy, “Many Indians can’t stand to use the toilet” says another international publication, while reports of Obama offering “I will help you clean up India” scream from other headlines. No one wants to be left behind to have a front seat for the great Indian dirt drama. 

Having worked closely on a campaign to “Stop Open Defecation” – basically make sure that people do it in toilets – the revelation of learning about toilet usage is worth sharing. Systematically done qualitative assessment on attitudes to cleanliness and toilet usage, threw up several surprises. 

Fallacy 1: Build a toilet and people will use it, right? Wrong. Over half the toilets that are built either by the Government or through subsidy are never used. Building is not the answer.

Fallacy 2: Toilets are cleaner and more hygienic. Nope. How can collecting poop within your household area be hygienic? Leave the dirt out. House is clean! Most people think it is cleaner to go in the open. Those who walk their dogs will understand this. 

Fallacy 3: Toilets are needed for women’s safety. You got me there. So that means guys can do it outside? It is considered “manly” to go out. Plus, the chance to get away for a chat and a smoke. Company is fun, pooping or not. 

Fallacy 4: Toilets are essential in every home. In many families where the home is considered abode of “Goddess Lakshmi” it is sacrilege to have a toilet where Lakshmi resides.

Fallacy 5: Okay so build community toilets. Who uses them, who cleans them? In a highly caste-polarized society (yes it is), usually it is the SC groups who do it. So we end up where toilet usage among backward communities is lower that of SC / ST communities who are “lower” on the caste ladder. Not possible to share toilets where caste rules. 

A manual scavenger

Fallacy 6: Give funding for poor so they build toilets. Having come across two-storied houses with no toilets, funding is not the point again. Several toilets built for subsidy have been used as storage for poultry, wood, cattle feed! Yes, please. 

Fallacy 7: It is a new clean drive so it will help: Swachh Bharat, formerly Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, formerly Total Sanitation Campaign, formerly Central Rural Sanitation Programme, has been on for years. The Swachh Bharat scheme has just updated its banner name on their website. A rose by any other name?

Fallacy 8: Celebrities and media promotion should help. The mainstream media and social media consumers aren’t really those who need toilet promotion messages. Celebrities have been used before for campaigns but very often they just put a face to the campaign.

Fallacy 9: Toilets are easy to use. First, don’t know how to use, 2nd don’t know how to clean, 3rd don’t know where to find water, 4th It stinks 5th may as well not use. 

Having played devil’s advocate here are some solutions for each of the above.

1. Focus on toilet usage not construction. Stop building toilets for now. Saturate usage where they have been built.
2. Focus on dirt show, so people do it indoors out of sheer embarrassment. This has been done successfully in Bangladesh, where communities are taken on a guided tour of shit spots.
3. Toilets have to crash the gender barrier. Talking about toilets for women has been counter-productive on the field. Toilets for all. The focus needs to be on men using toilets.
4. Some innovative panchayats have suggested that the toilet is constructed outside / at the back of the house. This has helped counter the Goddess perception. Usually in many parts of rural India, toilets are constructed away and not as part of the home.
5. “Community” toilets must have a built-in plan for maintenance by the Government. It may sound unfair, but unless the issue of caste at local level is resolved, community toilets will only reinforce toilet-cleaning by certain castes syndrome, counterproductive to society.
6. Toilet building is not about money, it is about attitude. If at all you must give a subsidy, give it for usage not for construction. Ideally don’t give any subsidy. Penalize and implement.
7. A change in approach rather than name and focus on attitude would help. Incidentally most people in non-Hindi speaking states like the one I live in have no clue how Swachh should be pronounced even!
8. Celebrity promotion has a limited effect; only good field work shows results. Result-driven, not target-driven implementation.
9. How to use toilets. Yes please talk about what is a toilet and how we use them. Unless this is done, people won’t worry about getting the point in a culture where it’s not unusual to find people squatting along fields or railway tracks. 

So it’s not that we don’t need to focus on sanitation, it’s just that it needs to be done differently. While hype and media visibility are good, finally work has to happen on the field and in a sustained manner. That has been and will be the challenge. 

It is not that India is too poor to be clean; it is just that people don’t care enough. 

And while you are pondering these points, here is another little tidbit: for what India has spent on sanitation till date we could have launched 50 Mars missions at the current cost! 

Toilets really are not about being the “in” thing anymore. It is about a whole host of issues that have been ignored for years. The earlier these are addressed, the better it will be for the quantum of money that has been and is all set to go, literally down the drain. 

Jayashree is a development communication professional. She heads the The Hindu Media Resource Centre at MSSRF. Views expressed are personal.

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