Skip to main content

Published on: 28/08/2014

To begin with the Clean India programme will target separate toilets for boys and girls in all schools in the country in the next year. Prime Minister Modi has also announced a scheme called `Sansad Aadarsh Gram Yojana’ to make one model village with modern facilities in every administrative block, to transform rural India.

Contrary to what is commonly believed sanitation is not something new to India. The ancient Indus valley civilization (3300-1300 BCE), among other things, had the world’s earliest known system of flush toilets connected to common sewerage, long before it existed in other parts of the world. The Vedas (1750-500 BCE) and Upanishads, ancient scriptures, considered cleanliness as Godliness. However, due to many different reasons the country slipped to become the world’s largest ‘open defecator’.  Of the 1 billion people world-wide who have no toilet, India accounts for 600 million. These people defecate in the open with disastrous consequences. In his speech, the Prime Minister has admitted that this is a huge challenge.

Urbanisation and literacy are the biggest drivers for sanitation coverage in India. The country has good policies, huge resources and massive networks of institutions. Despite high investments, millions of men, women and children continue to defecate in the open.

Under the current pace of implementation, India will achieve full sanitation coverage, but at a very high cost in the long run - and in the long run we are all dead! As sanitation is both a private and public good, incremental progress will not fetch corresponding health outcomes unless it reaches a critical mass at scale. Under the new Government, sanitation has become a high ranking political priority, which will certainly accelerate the pace of progress.

However, research indicates that building toilets will not solve India’s sanitation woes. One should view the possibilities of Clean India with cautious optimism in the context of critical gaps in the existing national programme and its delivery. Firstly, the programme apparently misses the big picture of looking holistically at the entire sanitation chain, beyond constructing toilets. States like Kerala which has very high sanitation coverage, has poor health outcomes due to second generation issues. Secondly, the focus continues to be on hardware - subsidy driven solutions, despite the high slippage, non-use and millions of ‘’missing toilets’’ under the Total Sanitation Campaign and Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Thirdly, India’s sanitation programme lacks the professionalism and high quality management which are critical for the desired behaviour change. Fragmented approaches, weak convergence, inequity and exclusion, procedural rigidities, poor monitoring and weak quality assurance are other serious blockages.

Community toilet in New DelhiOpen defecation in New Delhi

A well-constructed community toilet in disuse while inhabitants defecate in the open: A scene from a resettlement colony in New Delhi July 2014

India needs to set up Clean India as a campaign led by the Prime Minister to energise and mobilise the whole of India for a sanitation transformation. This campaign should bring the best marketing brains of the country to the fore with effective PRI (Panchayati Raj Institution)-led networks at the grass root level. To create demand for sanitation and encourage safe hygiene habits the campaign should utilize both mass media and face to face contact. Generating demand for sanitation and a well-aligned intervention programme for Clean India will not be possible by 2019 without mobilising the massive network of governmental and institutional infrastructure and millions of field workers with the sanitation and water supply, health, education and social welfare departments along with civil society. India can learn tremendously from its success of Pulse Polio Immunisation campaign that made the country polio free.

To make Clean India a success, the new political priority has to be translated effectively to become a bureaucratic priority at all levels, specifically the districts and lower levels. Rather than promoting a one size fits all sanitation solution, India should encourage innovation and adaptive solutions suited to its huge diversity. And finally, the current focus on Corporate Social Responsibility partnerships should go beyond funding to look for infusion of private sector management practices in sanitation, specifically in designing a communication strategy and campaign to generate demand. My discussions with many highly motivated district collectors in India have revealed that sanitation has never been a top priority for them.  If India proceeds with determination, the country will be ODF by 2019.



At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

Back to
the top