Although Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has sent India on a toilet-construction spree, 51.6 per cent of households across the country did not use an improved sanitation facility -- a system that separates human excreta from human contact -- between January 2015 and December 2016.
Household toilet availability has improved from 41.93 per cent in 2014 to 63.98 per cent in 2017, and Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Kerala have achieved 100% open defecation-free (ODF) status, data from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation show (as of May 22, 2017). However, almost all the progress reported by the ministry has been through no third-party verification, due to which the World Bank is holding off a $1.5 billion loan it had promised.
While Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin guidelines clearly envisage a yearly, country-wide, independent third-party assessment of the sanitation status of rural areas, there has been no independent monitoring so far.
The World Bank, which had promised a loan of $1.5 billion for Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin -- the rural arm of the mission -- has not released the first instalment which was due in July 2016 because India has not fulfilled the condition of conducting and announcing results of an independent verification survey.
It has rated the overall implementation progress of the programme as "moderately unsatisfactory."
Since 2014, 40 million household latrines have been constructed. Between May 1 and May 21, 2017, 489,710 individual household latrines were constructed across the country, data accessed on May 22, 2017 from the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin website show. That's an average of nearly 25,000 toilets constructed per day.
Gram panchayats have self-declared 193,081 villages to be ODF, but 53.9 per cent of these have not been verified, according to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which is responsible for Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, which accounts for 85 per cent of Swachh Bharat Mission's budget. (Data accessed on May 22, 2017).
Villages are considered "open defecation-free" when no faeces are openly visible and every household and public/community institution uses safe technology to dispose of faeces in such a way that there is no contamination of surface soil, groundwater or surface water; excreta is inaccessible to flies or animals, with no manual handling of fresh excreta; and there are no odour and unsightly conditions.
Usually, an "ODF village" declaration is made by the village or gram panchayat. The state government is supposed to carry out a first verification within three months, and a second verification around six months after the self-declaration.
As of 2016, 36.7 per cent of rural households and 70.3 per cent of urban households -- 48.4 per cent of households overall -- used improved sanitation facilities, data from the National Family Health Survey 4, which was conducted between January 2015 and December 2016, show. A majority, 51.6 per cent, did not.
Improved sanitation facility means having a system that separates human excreta from human contact which includes piped sewer system, septic tank, pit latrine, etc.
About 47 per cent of those who defecated in the open said they did so because it was pleasant, convenient and comfortable, a 2014 survey of 3,200 households in five states with the highest rates of open defecation found. Among households that had built a latrine, 40 per cent had at least one family member defecating in the open, the study conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics found.
"Programmes must concentrate on behaviour change and promoting latrine use, rather than building latrines. Although building latrines could be part of a successful policy package, little will be accomplished by planning to build latrines that will go unused," the authors noted.
Indians' preference for open defecation has to do with the practice of untouchability and beliefs about purity, according to this 2017 study by the same institute.
Through quantitative and qualitative studies, they found people considered having and using pit latrines impure and polluting. "Open defecation, in contrast, is seen as promoting purity and strength, particularly by men, who typically decide how money is spent in rural households," the study found.
Since the focus of Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin is on behaviour change, the guidelines require that eight per cent of the funds be allocated for information, education and communication (IEC) activities.
During the 2016-17 financial year, one per cent of the total expenditure had been made on IEC up to January 2017, according to Accountability Initiative's budget brief. In contrast, 98 per cent of the funds had been spent on construction of toilets in individual households.
Duplicate entries, ghost beneficiaries and missing households were the first stumbling block that researchers from the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research faced while tracking beneficiaries of the government's sanitation interventions across 7,500 households in 10 districts and five states in a December 2015 study.
Eventually, they studied 1,500 households that they could identify from the list. They found that a third of the households that government records showed as having achieved "sanitation status" actually had toilets, while 36 per cent that had constructed toilets said these were unusable.
Of the households with a latrine which had at least one member of the family defecating in the open, the most common reasons cited were absence of water and the pit being too small.
Further, 40 per cent of those who had applied for money from the government to build toilets reported not receiving it.
As many as 3.1 million (88 per cent) household toilets have been built in urban areas, against a target of 3.5 million for 2017-18, according to the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban website. Also, 115,786 (56 per cent) community toilets have been built against a target of 204,000.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform, with whom Swagata Yadavar is principal correspondent. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend.
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