It is impossible to keep Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan out of any discussion that even touches sanitation with a barge pole. And here we were discussing the very crux of the Abhiyaan - Toilets.

This was a couple of months ago. I was visiting villages in Muzaffarpur and Samastipur in Bihar; two of the 24 worst flood prone districts of Bihar. As part of the Disaster Risk Reduction programme, Oxfam India has constructed raised hand pumps and toilets to ensure safe water and sanitation during floods.

Twelve raised toilets have been built as part of a pilot project in the 4 blocks. This is to ensure that during floods the toilets don’t get submerged, people do not have to go in the open, and they are, therefore, not taken ill by water-borne diseases.

Oxfam has put up posters to train people to use toilets. The benefits of choosing a toilet instead of open defecation is vividly explained. Discussions are held in village meetings. Everyone – men, women, boys, and girls - nod in agreement. Everyone seems to be on the same page as the government’s pet Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan which aims to ‘clean India’ by 2019.

A quick look at the progress it has made so far. The website (for rural) claims to have built 40 million (4 crore) toilets. The day I checked the data, 52 toilets were being built every minute. And, 200,000 villages have become ODF – open-defecation free.

Centre has set a target of 11 crore toilets by 2019. The feasibility of this target has been widely debated. But it seems that the government has gone all guns blazing to ensure that the target is met. Discussions with the community hinted the state was moving from persuasion to coercion.

Going past the initial hoopla of discussing the benefits of toilet, a few were open enough to say that they have had to use toilets in ‘majboori’. “Earlier, the big farmers had left their fields open. Now they have fenced it. It is difficult to look for an open spot close by,” says one of the elderly men. This invites some chuckles.

Perhaps this resentment stems from their right to fresh air being taken away. Perhaps they haven’t yet come to terms with sitting in an enclosed space. These are mindsets and will take time to change. There are many, especially women and girls, who vouch for the benefits of a toilet and the security that it has provided to them. They are not restrained by time (going after sun down) or want of company (women / girls went in the open in groups). So, so far, not bad.

The more dangerous bit is what the government is trying to do in order to meet targets. Under the Abhiyaan, the state government gives Rs 12000 for constructing a toilet. The deal is that people will construct toilets, and then the Bihar government will transfer the entire amount in their account. (Around last year, during a trip to Uttar Pradesh, the deal was 50% in advance and 50% after completion of construction). That this money isn’t good enough or there isn’t a proper water supply in place is another matter.

In March, when the villagers, went to the block officials with a photograph of themselves posing in front of their newly constructed toilets, they were in for a rude shock. And here is the coercion bit – the state said that individuals will get that Rs 12000 only after “each house in that particular ward built a toilet”. The village I was visiting had 230 households in the ward!!!

This target is preposterous. A ward is a mixed bag – it has the moneyed and the poorest of the poor. Those who could afford it, have built toilets. There are others who will have to take a loan to build a toilet. This loan will have to come from a bank or a moneylender at high interest rates. There are a few who are too old or too poor to care for a toilet. Many are going to banks to open an account and take a loan. But then, there is the nagging question – what if the others don’t make it? If even one house is left out, that loan amount is, well, money down the drain.

In addition, in the future he is likely to be faced with an Aadhar-like situation. The state, we are told, is proposing a Swachchta Card to be issued to individuals once the toilet is built i.e. all the households in the ward have built toilets. This card will then be linked to all the schemes one has access to.

In Chhattisgarh, almost two years ago, we were visiting one of the districts where the village had filed claims (all papers were in order) over the community forest resources (CFR). They were told by the district official, that they would get their CFR rights if all the households in that village made toilets. At that point of time the community was still unsure about using the toilet. Though some of them had made toilets, they were using it as a store.

A recent article, chronicles instances from Chhattisgarh where the district officials have threatened to withdraw access to schemes if the villagers did not construct toilets. Naming and shaming has gone to an all new level. As stated in the article, it has been reported that officials go about taking pictures of men and women defecating in the open and threatening to put it on the internet if they do not build toilets.

At the start of the Abhiyaan, Chhattisgarh had 2000 toilets; at present it has 18 lakh. The pink toilet stalls can be spotted as one drives through the villages. Bihar’s statistics shows it went from 0 rural toilets in 2014 to 16 lakh when last checked. Anyhow, these numbers are likely to see a surge.

And if construction of toilets was the main goal, the government can well pat its back two years from now. These numbers, however, say nothing about the use of these toilets. They perhaps are still being converted to store rooms!!!

So if the government is looking to making people use toilets and change mindsets, it needs to educate and encourage people to use toilets. The government needs to ensure that there is proper water supply to keep the toilets clean. Unless this is done it would have very likely missed the goal post altogether.


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