Culture

Here’s the Secret Behind Rajasthan’s Sanitation Revolution

A woman in a village in Pali district shows the toilet her family has constructed [Photo credit: Somya Sethuraman]

A woman in a village in Pali district shows the toilet her family has constructed [Photo credit: Somya Sethuraman]

“Come and have a look at my toilet!” said Rajesh, a visibly excited farm worker in a remote village in rural Rajasthan. “No! Come and see the toilet at our home first!” exclaimed Meena to the sanitation team visiting the area. When was the last time you saw someone exult over toilets? Maybe, never? But in Rajasthan, this has become a common sight as thousands of households have just experienced the toilet revolution of their lifetime. The milestones achieved in remote corners of the state offer lessons for scaling-up sanitation in other Indian states that are struggling to eradicate open defecation.

Rajasthan has traditionally done poorly on sanitation because of water scarcity, low literacy and difficult terrain. However, the turning point in the state’s sanitation story came in 2010, when rural sanitation was devolved to the Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Department. This led to a renewed focus on sanitation through greater decentralization.

Simple changes of policy created an enabling environment for change. The most significant was the state’s decision to junk its traditional construction-driven agenda in favour of a participatory approach. Instead of treating households as mere beneficiaries of a subsidy program, the state empowered them to be decision-makers.

The Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach it adopted focused on improving sanitation by addressing the root cause of open defecation — the attitudes and behaviour of people.

CLTS, however, is only a tool to initiate the process of transformation through behavioural change. In Rajasthan, the holistic approach adopted by the state led to faster progress. Partner organizations like the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) of the World Bank and UNICEF stepped in to provide technical support to the state for scaling up rural sanitation. As a result, CLTS workshops were complemented with vibrant district-level sanitation campaigns led by Collectors, improved communication between departments, strengthening the supply chain of sanitation products and monitoring toilet usage rather than construction.

A village in Bikaner [Photo credit: Somya Sethuraman]

A village in Bikaner [Photo credit: Somya Sethuraman]

Community participation was integral to the sanitation campaign. Nal Beri, a gram panchayat in Bikaner district which was among the first to become open-defecation-free (ODF) within two weeks of its CLTS workshop is a case in point. The campaign in Nal Beri overcame age-old beliefs by raising questions about the community’s pride and dignity. “A woman has to wear a veil to protect her dignity, but what about her dignity when she lifts her skirt to squat in public spaces?” people were asked. Once the workshops generated adequate demand for toilets, the village head was encouraged to hold daily meetings to sort out financial and technical issues. A few households that were poor received financial support from friends, relatives and the village administration to construct a toilet. Soon, news about the sanitation revolution in Nal Beri travelled to neighbouring villages and led to a mass demand for toilets.

Badge of honour

Such sanitation campaigns have been a huge success in rural Rajasthan. The campaigns are led passionately by district Collectors who are regarded as sanitation champions. The Banka Bikano (brave and beautiful Bikaner) campaign in Bikaner, and similarly Phutro (Beautiful) Pali, Chokho (Clean) Churu and Badlegi Bundi (Bundi will change) in Pali, Churu and Bundi districts in Rajasthan are all deeply rooted in the traditions and culture of these districts.

Innovative ideas to encourage community participation, especially among women, have been key to the success of these campaigns. As Rohit Gupta, District Collector, Pali, until recently, said, “The localised nature of the campaign caught the imagination of the communities. Every household that constructs a toilet gets a Phutro Ghar (beautiful home) nameplate for their home on which the name of the female family member is mentioned ahead the male member. This is a matter of great pride for the women. Through these community-driven campaigns, women have also found a way to voice their concerns. In Pali, for instance, a women-led community service group called Mission Poorn Shakti has been a conducting door-to-door campaign to spread awareness.”

While the district-level campaigns strengthened the demand for toilets, efforts to close the supply-side gaps are also in progress. A sanitation park was recently inaugurated in Pali district, with WSP’s technical support, to showcase different toilet options. Households can visit the park, select a toilet of their choice and directly approach the entrepreneurs for constructing these toilets at competitive prices. These parks not only give more freedom to the household to choose their own design and service provider but also eliminate misconceptions about the cost of construction.

Sanitation park in Pali [Photo credit: Sushil Mate]

Sanitation park in Pali [Photo credit: Sushil Mate]

Managing waste locally

Most households construct twin-pit latrines or single pits, if they cannot afford the two-pit system. If constructed properly — documented evidence says a pit 4-feet deep and 4-feet wide works well — it takes around five years for one pit to fill up. Once the first pit is full, households can start using the second one while the fecal matter in the first pit breaks down. The average cost of a basic toilet (equipment and superstructure) is around Rs. 12,000, which is what beneficiaries are entitled to under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the new name of the erstwhile Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. However, many households incur additional expenditure on decorative tiles which is a reflection of their aspirations. Households also opt for septic tanks. Since the decision is with the household as per Rajasthan’s sanitation model, they are free to choose from the options available in the market. The toilets displayed at the park range from Rs. 12000 to Rs. 31000 with different technology, material and design options. There is a misconception among households that a 4-feet deep pit would fill up too soon. So people end up digging pits that are even 10-20 feet deep. This could pose environmental and health risks in the future and the government is trying to address this through community awareness activities. The sanitation park in Pali, for instance, was also developed to clarify some of these issues.

Sewerage systems are uncommon in villages in Rajasthan as the state has difficult soil conditions. Some are rocky belts, others have sand dunes and kacchi mitti. So onsite sanitation systems will be better in the long run. Further, decentralised systems will also ensure that every household takes ownership of their own waste management.

Preventing slip-backs

To prevent slip-backs in ODF villages, districts have strengthened the process of verification and monitoring. In Bikaner, for instance, the district has implemented a mobile-based application to monitor the usage of toilets. Further, to encourage toilet usage, the districts make payments to the beneficiaries only after they start using the toilet. Hence, subsidy is no longer the means through which households construct a toilet, but a reward they get for using it.

From a situation where not a single village was ODF, Rajasthan has come a long way in just two years. Bikaner, the second largest district in Rajasthan, recently reported 75 percent coverage, showing a remarkable improvement from 25 percent coverage in 2012. Other districts are making sincere efforts to catch-up, with Churu and Bundi reporting 70 percent and 50 percent coverage, respectively. If the momentum continues, Bikaner and Churu might soon be free of open defecation.

One can write reams about Rajasthan’s sanitation revolution but what stands out is this: The revolution epitomises the strength of unity and collective action. It highlights the role that women can play as agents of change even in a patriarchal society. Most importantly, it underlines the need for states to switch from the traditional construction-driven approach to one that is demand-driven, participatory and focused on behavioural change and toilet usage. While subsidies are important, the real driver is the quest for a dignified life.

Somya Sethuraman is a sanitation consultant. She previously served as the Sanitation Specialist for the municipal administration department, Government of Tamil Nadu and as a researcher for the Institute for Financial Management and Research, Chennai. Email: somyase@gmail.com