By Payal Seth
India was declared an open defecation free (ODF) country at the conclusion of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on October 2, 2019. This claim was backed by the statistics from the SBM programme, which reported that India had achieved universal coverage i.e. the proportion of people with access to toilets. However, the statistics from NFHS-5 factsheet, which captures the use of these sanitation facilities, convey that India is far from achieving the ODF status (bit.ly/2MYzFEB).
The conflicting evidence about India’s ODF claims from the two Government of India’s sources can be explained as follows: SBM informs us about the access, while NFHS-5 reports the fraction of households that usually use the toilets. The two surveys jointly conclude that access to toilets in India does not concomitantly translate to its adoption as open defecation (OD) is an enduringly entrenched social norm in India. Given there is a disconnect between access and adoption, SBM should also include the statistics on adoption of toilets on its dashboard. It is in this context that I propose budgeting for a nationally representative sanitation survey in the upcoming union budget 2021-2022.
The department of drinking water and sanitation (DDWS) under the ministry of Jal Shakti, launched the second phase of SBM (SBM II) on May 2020 with the objective to achieve ODF plus status for India, i.e., sustaining India’s ODF status as well as going beyond OD and tackling the impending challenges of solid and liquid waste management (SLWM). The ODF plus component will be evaluated along with four objectives: “plastic waste management, bio-degradable solid waste management (including animal waste management), greywater management and faecal sludge management” (bit.ly/3nJc7R0).
The guidelines for SBM II distinctly mention that the programme will work towards ensuring that everyone uses the toilet (bit.ly/38JOLqe). While this statement along with the SLWM is a step in the positive direction, the SBM II guidelines sidestep stating adoption of toilets in the checklist prepared to declare a village/community ODF (source: SBM II Operational Guidelines, 2020 (Page 19, bit.ly/39qLo6A). The checklist includes, (1) access to functional toilets by all the households in a village, (2) the presence of community sanitation complexes (CSCs) in villages with more than 100 households, (3) presence of gendered-functional toilets in anganwadi centres and four other waste management related criterion.
It is important to note that neither SBM nor SBM II accounts for adoption when declaring a village ODF. There is a need to take a step back and understand that India has still not successfully attained the ODF status in terms of adoption, hence moving from ODF to ODF Plus under SBM II while circumventing usage of toilets will not be representative of the true state of sanitation in India.
I propose that in the presence of conflicting evidence of India’s ODF status after NFHS-5, SBM II should be allocated a separate budget, under India’s 2021-2022 Union budget, to conduct a survey for independent verification of SBM statistics. Unlike SBM, the success of SBM II should not be self-reported by state and local governments (see bit.ly/2LPKZlQ). Instead, this task should be delegated to an independent survey agency that specialises in conducting surveys on sanitation behaviour. The surveys should incorporate two self-reported measures: (1) access to toilets, and (2) use of toilets. Concurrently, objective indicators like enumerator verification of the presence and quality of toilets (for example, if the toilets have a solid and intact structure deeming those fit for use) should also be included.
Inclusion of a rigorous nationally-representative sanitation survey to assess India’s open defecation behaviour will increase the budget allocation for SBM in the 2021-2022 budget, but it will also help the policymakers and the programme implementers to rationalise future investment in sanitation. For instance, will the investment yield highest return by further increasing access? Or are the respondents merely facing infrastructural barriers to adoption and the most productive use of allocation of funds will be to simply upgrade the already built sanitation hardware? This is an important question because SBM and NFHS-5 are both silent about the quality of toilets built. Finally, assuming that the access is universal and quality of toilets is sound, should the programme invest in reinforcing the behaviour change messages to upend the behavioural constraints like sticky social norms towards using toilets.
Budgeting for a survey this term will ensure that the provision of a limited SBM II budget yields highest returns in the coming years.
The author is Consultant at Tata-Cornell Institute, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Views are personal