Toilet subsidy is no solution to sanitation crisis: Sanan

Deepak Sanan, one of the flag bearers of community-led total sanitation (CLTS), believes that collective behaviour change works more than individual grants. Himachal Pradesh is a case in point.

Swachh Bharat Mission status and progress
Deepak Sanan, IAS

In recent years, especially after the launch of major programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, sanitation has become a hotly debated topic in India. Crores of rupees have gone into building toilets but they remain unused, villages that were declared open defecation free (ODF) are unable to sustain that, and sewage treatment continues to be a big challenge. In such a scenario, community led total sanitation (CLTS) offers a different approach. It calls for the suspension of toilet subsidies and instead works towards securing collective behaviour change by instilling disgust or fear in the community.

Himachal Pradesh was one of the early adopters of this concept, reaching about 67 percent rural toilet coverage as per Census 2011 which was more than double the national average of 31 percent. But urban areas have started facing problem of sewage disposal with state capital Shimla registering major jaundice outbreaks frequently.

We talk to Deepak Sanan, Additional Chief Secretary in the Himachal Pradesh government and one of the flag bearers of CLTS on how the state achieved such a feat and what are some challenges.

CLTS has been tried in other states of India as well. Was the social set up in Himachal Pradesh different that it worked so well in the State?

I don’t think there is any difference in the social set up of Himachal that was critical. Himachal Pradesh has strong caste divisions even if it is a predominantly Hindu state. CLTS focuses on collective behaviour change and not on subsidy and it can work anywhere. For instance, Chhattisgarh which is very different when compared to Himachal in terms of education levels, poverty and other social aspects, is moving very fast in the last year using CLTS and abjuring individual household subsides. In fact, it’s setting a good example for states like Bihar and Jharkhand where people say you cannot have toilets without doling out money.

In Himachal, as at other places that have got CLTS right, what worked was the policy shift from subsidies on individual toilets to collective behaviour change. Capacity building in CLTS techniques was arranged at the state level. Local champions like the Deputy Commissioner of Mandi district engaged appropriate NGO support, constituted committees, prepared action plans and involved Panchayati raj institutions. Other DCs followed suit as they also wanted the accolades and awards Mandi district was getting.

CLTS has the potential to work even in urban locations like Kalyani town in West Bengal has shown. The key is to locate the right triggers, involve local governments and facilitate an appropriate action plan that can ensure safe confinement and disposal of human waste irrespective of whether the location is rural or urban, or whether the community is homogenous or diverse.

You mentioned that poverty and illiteracy are not the barriers. What do you feel is the barrier to CLTS?

The only barrier as Dr. Kamal Kar, the pioneer of CLTS says, is “intellectual constipation”. It needs a change in perspective that sanitation improves with collective behavior change and not subsidy. By giving out money for building toilets, you are not helping the poor. It sends out a message, “this is my problem more than yours which is way I am giving you money”. Let them access toilets because they feel the need for it.

You have to spread the idea to entire communities that excreta contaminates their surrounding environment and they are ingesting their own shit. Once the community is triggered and decide to get rid of open defecation, they will come forward to assist the poor and needy amongst them. Even the poorest are not willing to eat shit and the better off will also ensure they do not eat the shit of the poor.

If the entire community is not involved, open defecation by a few people places the entire habitation at risk. This is happening in most villages of India where toilets have been built but not put to use. Favourable public health outcomes are secured only when the entire community changes its behaviour.

Instead of subsidies, give them award money for achieving total sanitation and let them decide how they want to spend it for community welfare. By giving individual subsidies, you also create divisions in the community and reinforce the feeling that certain people need toilets more than others. So it is the perception that subsidy from above is essential that has to change. That is the only barrier to make rapid progress in ending open defecation.

Safe disposal of sewage in the hills is a big issue as the overflow goes on to contaminate water sources downstream as is evident in the annual jaundice outbreaks in Shimla. How do you think high toilet coverage can translate into safe waste disposal as well?

That’s the next big challenge for us. In urban areas, proper sewage linkages and waste water management are crying for attention. There needs to be proper Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) for septic tank-based households. In rural areas, this problem will emerge in the coming times. We need to start putting in place monitoring systems where people can test their own environment for contamination and then devise treatment strategies. Waste management is not a very big issue yet in rural areas but we will have to deal with it pretty soon. In addition, Himachal has forgotten the gains made with CLTS and has gone back to subsidising individual household toilets so there is still the last mile of dealing with left out households, migrants and public spaces to end open defecation.

Swachh Bharat Mission status

Are all community members able to opt for sanitary toilets or do they gradually move to improved toilets as and when they have the money?

In Himachal Pradesh, I have seen a few instances of triggered communities ensuring immediate construction of basic pit toilets before moving to improved toilets. But by and large, communities have straightaway adopted improved toilets. Twin pit toilet is the best option for rural areas if there’s no proper onsite treatment system. But in Himachal, people have mostly gone for septic tanks as they feel it is a better option.

In certain remote areas like Lahaul and Spiti, night soil is often used in the fields as manure. What do you think about such traditional practices?

It is a very good model as people mix excreta with soil and use it in the fields. In fact, these areas could easily move to twin pit toilets since that also involves the use of excreta as compost after the waiting period is over. Twin pit toilet is also a more hygienic way to confine and reuse the waste.

Have you noticed villages covered by CLTS slipping back on their ODF status? If yes, what could be the reasons?

I have not seen any ‘slipback’ as such in Himachal Pradesh. A 2010 survey in the state reported that in villages which got Nirmal Gram Puraskars, there was no reversion to open defecation. There was a small (6%) reversion noted in the other villages.

The article is republished with permission from India Water Portal. It was originally published here.

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