Has the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Brought a Paradigm Shift in Rural Sanitation?

Innovate methods are being used to encourage people to end open defecation, but issues like the underutilisation of funds and use of coercive methods to achieve targets remain.

Some 250,000 of India’s 649,481 villages have been declared open defecation free. Credit: Reuters

Some 250,000 of India’s 649,481 villages have been declared open defecation free. Credit: Reuters

The government has run rural sanitation programmes since the 1980s. Yet, according to Census 2011, only about 30% of all rural households have toilets, and even fewer use those toilets. By contrast, under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, several changes have taken place.

Efforts towards a ‘Swachh Bharat’

First, a commitment has come from the highest level of government, with the prime minister himself doing “shramdan” for the construction of a twin pit toilet in a village in Varanasi.

Second, under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for the first time, the government is focusing on triggering a collective behaviour change on a large scale instead of merely on the construction of toilets. Even the management information system of the government is counting communities and districts that have become open defecation free (ODF); earlier it was only counting the number of toilets.

Third, the speed with which toilets are being constructed has also gained momentum. Since 2014, 40 million household latrines have been constructed. Some 250,000 of India’s 649,481 villages have been declared ODF, along with 201 districts and five states as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Fourth, there is a renewed focus on verification and sustainability of ODF status by monitoring toilet use.

Fifth, money has been allocated on a scale hitherto unheard of to hire the staff needed to mobilise communities around sanitation. Half a million ‘Swachhagrahis’ have been deployed in villages and districts. There has occurred an empanelment of key resource centres at the national level for capacity building on collective behaviour change.

Sixth, there is focus on senior male members of households to sensitise them through collective behaviour change (through Darwaza Band campaign). Use of social media for creating awareness is also happening. ‘Swachhata Preraks’ have been deployed in each district to support the district magistrates directly. Training of district officials is creating a new momentum.

Seventh, there is a new focus on ODF plus, i.e. solid and liquid waste management. This is done with a view to incentivise sustainability of ODF status. Special sustainability funds and fund allocation to states on performance is also ongoing.

Also read: Demolitions, Evictions and Toilets for Show: How Indore Won Swachh Bharat’s Top Rank

Finally, there are a number of programmatic innovations taking place under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) and related approaches succeed most easily in relatively small and homogeneous villages while larger and multi-caste villages are more difficult. Two practices in these conditions have been shown to work. This is important to point out, since, in a recent otherwise excellent book, Dean Spears and Diane Coffey had identified caste as a major barrier to adoption of toilets. In fact, they had found caste as an overriding problem in achieving ODF villages. However, solutions are emerging.


One is pre-triggering. The success of triggering behaviour change depends a lot on the quality and thoroughness of preparations made through pre-triggering. This involves collecting information about the village and its inhabitants, establishing contacts with them and preparing officers and the village for triggering. Often pre-triggering is not given sufficient emphasis and is only skimmed through in training.

A second innovation is seeking help from different religious leaders. Most villages have different ethnic/religious/caste groups. Therefore, it becomes difficult to address all the groups together as gathering them on the same platform might be difficult.

All the local religious leaders are called in to tell them about the importance of using toilets and the harmful effects of open defecation. They are asked to communicate the same to the villagers. This has resulted in quicker understanding and the involvement of religious leaders in triggering exercises has mobilised the whole community.

Another programmatic innovation is persuading all, especially men, to abandon open defecation. Partial usage of toilets is a major problem in parts of India. On the whole, it has been found that convincing men to use toilets even when one is available is most challenging. Here too recent practice has revealed measures that work. First, pressure from the medical practitioners in the village is an effective too. One way to motivate villagers to discontinue open defecation is to take the help of those who practice medicine since what they advice generally has a high rate of acceptance in villages.

Similarly, ODF village pradhans are emerging as champions to trigger other villages. In some areas of UP, pradhans are often well-respected and listened to. Evidence is emerging that they succeed in motivating male members of the community to abandon the practice.

This has served two main purposes. Those selected village leaders feel respected and valued that their actions have actually made a difference thereby motivating them to continue the fight against open defecation. Also, given that they come from the same social context, it was easier for the villagers, men in particular, to understand what these individuals were saying.

One challenge that is often faced of the poorest claiming that they do not have the funds to build toilets. In such situations, more prosperous villagers have come forward and formed a supply chain to provide the essential materials for toilet construction through a no-interest loan that could later be repaid upon receiving the government’s financial incentive. There have also been cases of community donation for economically weaker families.

 Twin-pit technology

Spears and Coffey rightly point out that there is a predilection for building septic tanks in rural areas, which are very expensive for the majority. Moreover, such tanks create a downstream problem of solid and liquid waste management, since the tanks require waste disposal every few years. To overcome this problem, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has encouraged twin-pit technology, which is a “complete treatment plant” in itself. In contrast to a septic tank, the total cost of a twin-pit toilet is no more than Rs 12, 000, and it does not need to be emptied – since its contents become ordinary manure once left to dry for a year.

Masons are essential for introducing twin-pit technology to villages. In some districts, however, very few masons are available who can construct a twin-pit toilet.

As Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, new triggering tools are also being used. Making villagers are being made aware of a link between open defecation and stunting among children, which has recently become an effective tool for triggering behaviour change. For instance, a photograph was used which shows two children: one healthy two-year-old and a stunted five-year-old, both standing next to each other. The heights of the two children are the same. As a result, communities are being made aware of the fact that sanitation is linked with the well-being of future generations as well.

A similar tool to trigger behaviour change when the community is brought together is menstruation. Menstruation is generally recognised as a women’s issue and men are told not to talk about it. But now menstruation is being used as a triggering tool to stop open defecation. Men were asked: ‘Do you know what difficulties a woman faces when she goes for open defecation during menstruation?’ The male members then realised that they never thought about the problem of their own mother, wife and sisters. In response, they took the decision to construct a toilet at home and stop open defecation for the convenience of women in their own families.


Innovations apart, several challenges remain. In all districts, more work is needed for the disabled – designing and building appropriate toilets for them. There is also the need for high-quality CLTS facilitators. Masons may also need refresher training focusing on the benefits of twin-pits. Strengthening of the supply chain is needed to ensure rapid availability of materials for toilet construction, through the establishment of supply-chain specific committees at district, block and gram panchayat level.

Moreover, changing mindsets remains a challenge: acceptance of twin-pit toilets is still a problem. People in rural areas still think that a twin-pit is a government toilet for poor people. More information, education and communication (IEC) is needed to advocate that it is safe and scientific, easily built, costs less, is easy to empty and that the waste can be used as manure. However, a majority of the IEC funds have remained unutilised.

Also read: The Human Cost of the Obsession with a ‘Swachh Bharat’

Then there is the challenge of some state and district officials using coercive methods to stop open defecation to achieve targets. This is not behaviour change. Constant efforts are needed to correct a centuries-old problem in India.

Sustaining patterns to end open defecation is a big issue. Successful rural sanitation programmes worldwide with CLTS have been based on no hardware subsidy. India’s subsidy programme creates unique problems. Major problems resulting from a subsidy-driven programme are: Constructing toilets without collective behaviour change; malpractices, low quality and inappropriate construction; lack of ownership and partial usage of toilets, with some household members continuing open defecation; leaving out of the disabled; declarations of ODF to meet targets when the reality lags far behind.

In his speech on the occasion of Swachhta Divas on October 2, the prime minister himself accepted that there is a problem of both usage and sustainability under Swachh Bharat Mission. “We need peoples’ participation. We do not have any other option, but we will have to do it,” he said.

Santosh Mehrotra is a human development economist, former UNICEF adviser and a professor at JNU. Vinod Mishra is India Coordinator, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.