Cities & Architecture

Only a Change in Government Behaviour Can Clean Up India

It’s not that Indians are dirty but that the Indian state has never invested in the complete sanitation chain

Temporary toilets erected by the local council. Credit: Yaniv Malz/Flickr CC 2.0

Temporary toilets erected by the local council. Credit: Yaniv Malz/Flickr CC 2.0

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched last year with the goal of eliminating open defecation from India by October 2019. It aims to catalyse a nationwide commitment towards hygiene and sanitation and help generate lasting behaviour change among the people. The mission is a commendable one and its message is one that needs reinforcing. But the underpinnings of the mission raise serious and troubling questions.

The SBM is built on a fundamental premise – that people are dirty, and defecate in the open even when they don’t have to. It claims that once toilets are provided, and the behaviour of Indians has been modified, all sanitation problems will be solved. India will become clean and consequently healthy. What the SBM does is to equate poor sanitation with open defecation (OD), and lay the blame for this, not so subtly, at the people’s door. But is this really the case? Are behaviour change and toilets all we need to achieve a swachh Bharat, or clean India?

Yes, the problem of defecating in the open is huge. Fifty per cent of our population does so. And behaviour is an important cause. Studies show that in 20-49% of even those households which have toilets within the house, at least one member defecates in the open. But most such studies have been conducted in rural settings among households who have benefitted from government toilet subsidies. The same studies also show that some of the most important reasons for OD, apart from sheer non-availability of toilets, are the poor quality, inadequate numbers and poor maintenance of toilets or lack of water supply. Indeed the condition of most of our public toilets is such that users may as well defecate in the open. In other words, blame for OD due to poor infrastructure must rest squarely at the government’s door. Moreover, we have had subsidy schemes identical to SBM since 1999; over 9.5 crore rural toilets have been constructed under the Total Sanitation Campaign and Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Yet the Census shows only an 11% reduction in rural OD between 2001 and 2011. Obviously, constructing more of the same, as the SBM proposes, cannot be the answer.


Rural toilets, built by the government, in a state of disrepair. Credit: Morten Knutsen/Flickr CC 2.0

Rural toilets, built by the government, in a state of disrepair. Credit: Morten Knutsen/Flickr CC 2.0

Most critically though, toilets are just the initial collection points for the entire excreta management chain. Sanitation, however, includes not just safe collection, but also transport, treatment and safe disposal. Till excreta is safely disposed so as not to contaminate land and drinking water, the sanitation chain remains incomplete and the risk to our health ever-present and severe.

Unfortunately in India, if the toilet situation is bad, the status of excreta treatment and disposal – a domain that is entirely the responsibility of the government – is abysmal. Just about 34% of the population’s latrines are connected either to septic tanks or underground sewerage; the rest have pit latrines where the waste decomposes, usually in unhealthy conditions. Local bodies provide little or no services for septic tank cleaning. An informal industry flourishes to fill this gap. In the complete absence of any monitoring of their functioning, private septic tank emptiers dump this polluting waste on any available empty lot or water body. Government capacities to treat sewered excreta are also extremely limited. Just 30% of urban sewerage from only the largest cities reaches sewerage treatment plants (STPs). The woes don’t end here; STP inefficiencies ensure that a large part of this sewerage flows into our rivers untreated. In short, even when we do use toilets, our government’s apathy has ensured that we unsuspectingly continue to contaminate our land and our drinking water sources. No wonder we are a sick nation; not surprising that we lose over 3 lakh children to diarrhoea each year.

So, what do we realistically need to achieve a Swachh Bharat? First of all, it’s obvious that merely building toilets and ‘changing people’s behaviour’ is not the solution. Pushing the problem under the surface, literally and figuratively, will in fact compound the crisis. We need end-to-end solutions. Toilets are only the first step, they have been built before, and as we’ve seen above, the results are appalling. The sooner the government accepts this, the better.

If we are to seriously have a clean India, there must be a ‘behaviour change’ within the government. While a deadline to deliver on a scheme is a welcome step, it must also allow for results the country needs – the complete sanitation chain.

It is the government’s responsibility to ensure quality in its subsidised toilets – to provide transport, treatment, and disposal of excreta, not the people’s. It is the government that has failed to provide services for septic tank cleaning, for underground sewerage, for adequate efficient STPs or to regulate service providers, not the people. It is heartening that a Prime Minister has made the call for a clean nation. It is now up to him to deliver too. But if his administration focuses on modifying people’s behaviour, rather than its own, the SBM will go the way most government schemes do – start with much fanfare but fade out without a whimper. Modi’s government needs to look beyond toilets; into the pits and along the drains. Else, we may eliminate open defecation come October 2019 but we will still be drinking crap from our rivers.

Anjali Chikersal is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research with over 20 years of clinical and public health experience. She is leading the Urban Health Program (UHP) of the Scaling City Institutions for India (Sci-Fi) Sanitation project

  • Ganesa

    Dear Sirs,

    I refer to the captioned news report in The Wire, dt. 27th Sept. 2015, by Anjali Chikersal who has very clearly and factually discussed the issue. She is right and nothing will change unless the Governments’ mindset changes radically towards practicable solutions to the issue. In the present scenario, Swatch Bharat will be in government files only and the ground realities will be same as of now even in 2099 A.D. For example, our Governments have been spending thousands of crores to promote family planning right from the year 1950s but, till date we have not stabilized the population growth. Where has all the spending gone? Or is the result commensurate with the spending?

    It is said that we have only 30% capacity of waste water treatment and the balance 70% is being let into rivers/canals
    as untreated raw sewage. Even the holy river Ganga is no exception. Right from Himachal till it reaches the bay of Bengal, each and every populated area lets raw sewage into it. Even the said 30% capacity of sewage treatment is perhaps in govt. files only because, the Hon. Union Minister for Environment has stated a few months back that only
    30% of the existing STPs are working efficiently and the balance are either defunct or defective. It will be mind boggling if you get to know the quantum of money spent on STPs. as in the case of family planning.

    STPs are not suited for Indian conditions. They need huge big capital to set up. Continuous 24×7 power supply with 100% back up. They are power guzzlers and many of the municipal councils have shut down the STPs. for non-payment of electricity dues. The Operation & Maintenance cost, Annual Maintenance Contract, Repairs to the air blowers, motors and vital installations cost a fortune which is not affordable by the municipal bodies. The result is there is STP on record but untreated raw sewage will be let into the river bodies during nights. That is why, STPs are invariably set up close to river banks.

    The govt. will always argue that cost of sewage treatment in STPs is very economical. It is farce because, they don’t take interest and depreciation on STP installations into cost but will always take the quantum untreated sewage that is let into rivers as “treated” and the average cost of treatment will be less because of distortion.

    As for rural sanitation, the Govts are fully aware that individual pit/borehole latrines pollute mother earth and ground water. Is there way out to resolve this issue in rural and urban sector. Yes there is. I will present it in Part 2 in my next mail to follow.


  • Ganesa

    Part 2: ‘Biomagic’ is a unique, eco-friendly, biotech product of 100% Indian invention in powder form available in Chennai. It is the invention of Mr C. Rammohan, product of the first batch of first IIT at Kharagpur and a practicing civil engineer. Biomagic stops bad smell from sewage and biodegradable solid waste/waste water INSTANTLY on application and turns sewage reusable for agriculture, horticulture, gardening, ground water recharge or for letting into canals, rivers, lakes or sea. There is no need for mechanical aeration as in STPs or electricity. In fact, there is no need for STPs at all. Thus, there is lot of saving on capital cost, power, O&M., AMC., Repairs, Skilled Manpower, etc. Biomagic can be used in existing STPs too – whether working, defective or defunct.
    Biomagic is cost effective. It will cost only 50% of actual cost of treatment in STPs., even without interest & depreciation cost. Biomagic doesn’t require any special preparation or arrangement to start the operation. Anybody interested to have more details, can contact V K Raman +91 9952988540 or [email protected] This is not for product promotion but is in the larger interest of the citizens of Mera Bharat. Will this go to the notice of the concerned Central Govt. Depts. and will they respond? i doubt because I know their mindset.

  • Ganesa

    Part 3: Biomagic completely digests faecal matter in septic tanks, STPs and rural pit/borehole latrines. There will be no residual sludge, no pollution of mother earth or ground water. .

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