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Barely noticed and mostly ignored by the chatterati, a silent sanitation revolution appears to be underway in rural West Bengal, Rajasthan and to some extent in Madhya Pradesh. It appears that we may finally be turning a corner in our war against open defecation. Roughly half of India’s population- about 600 million-relieve themselves outdoors, a serious risk to health, resulting in illness and deaths of thousands of infants every year.

When the Prime Minister gave a call for Swachh Bharat on 2nd October, 2014, one of the components of this program was to ensure access to a sanitary toilet to every rural household. The target was to construct 6.84 crore new toilets and ensure reconstruction of 1.39 crore dysfunctional toilets in rural India by 2019.

The challenge was particularly severe in five states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha -accounting for nearly 50% open defecation in the country as per the Census 2011. But toilet construction alone, though necessary, was by no means sufficient to guarantee an open defecation free India. Previous experience has shown that constructing toilets without inducing behaviour change in the community results in the toilets lying unused or being put to alternate non-sanitary usage.

What is refreshing about this campaign is that it appears to be less about toilet construction, and more about changing mind-sets, deeply held cultural beliefs and practices. What is even more heartening to note is that women and children have been consciously encouraged to be in the vanguard of this campaign. There has been enormous commitment to the campaign from the political leadership of these States (West Bengal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) right from the Chief Ministers to the Panchayat representatives at all levels and this commitment has visibly rubbed off on the government machinery which appears to have put its heart and soul into the program.

Every tool in the book that can build an emotional connect with the community has been deployed to trigger the required change; for example, appealing to the sense of honour and safety of women-folk, highlighting the ill consequences upon health and nutrition status of the population and also involving faith based mobilisation to inculcate good behaviour. This is one shining example of channelizing the faith based organization for good community and civic use.

By ensuring that the supply (of cash assistance and Toilet construction materials) matches demand push generated through the induced behavioural change generated through community engagement; all links in the program chain have been completed with little left to chance. Now the constructed toilets shall be used for the purpose they were constructed for stand fairly high chances. The peer pressure and also the Gram Panchayats decreeing fine for deviant behaviour is likely to ensure that this change can be sustained.

The Swachh Vidyalaya initiative of the Government – by its insistence upon on universal separate toilets for boys and girls in every school premise – has effectively complemented in further ratcheting up the momentum under the Swachh Bharat Mission; with schools becoming the seed for a larger societal behavioural change. It would be pertinent to note that the pace of construction of toilets in rural India after the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission has doubled, with nearly 1 crore toilets having been built this year compared to an average of 50 lakh toilets in the preceding years. We are now witnessing the emergence of a generation of young people who would find it difficult to even imagine defecating in the open.

As expected, the positive externalities of sanitary toilets on health and nutrition status of the rural population are already becoming evident through third party studies. For instance, Nadia District of West Bengal – which has been declared as 100% Open Defecation Free (ODF) – has reported a decrease in incidence of diarrhoea, besides significant reduction in the number of severely mal-nourished children.

However, several challenges remain. In States with highest prevalence of open defecation, such as U.P., Bihar and Odisha this campaign is yet to pick up significant speed. We do not seem to be getting much traction and attention to this program in these States.

If we have to have an open defecation free India by 2019, we need to effectively engage with these States. Keeping in view the number of toilets yet to be constructed in these states and consequent requirement of resources, we could do well to learn from the low cost sanitary latrine model in Bangladesh if we have to fulfil the dream of Swachh Bharat by 2nd October, 2019. The campaign is also not picking up steam in urban areas and needs to be given a decisive push. The momentum generated by this mission gives us reason to believe that India shall overcome.

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