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Government of India announces new efforts to mainstream rural sanitation and to end open defecation

Published on: 28/02/2012

The Government of India has announced a 40%-60% increase in spending on sanitation from April 2012 and says it will more than double the subsidy that goes to rural families who build a toilet at home. This is part of an effort to transform the role of sanitation in rural areas where, according to official figures, 60% of the population still defecates in the open. 

The Government of India Minister for Rural Development, Dr Jairam Ramesh, has promised a new focus on sanitation which will bring combined union and state funding to US$ 4 billion, an increase of US$ 1.6 billion. He described the current Rs. 3,000 subsidy for building family toilets as “ridiculous” and said this would be raised to somewhere from Rs. 7,000 - 10,000. At the same time criteria to receive the subsidy will be broadened so it will go to all poor rural families, not only those who are officially below the poverty line.

There will be a new emphasis on village governments (gram panchayati) becoming responsible for ensuring sanitation coverage in their areas. Families will be encouraged to top up the subsidy with their own money and with loans. Banks will be expected to treat these as priority loans.

These changes will be part of the 12th Five Year Plan. The Total Sanitation Scheme will be renamed as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan to underline the message that this should become a people’s movement, not a top down bureaucratic programme. Civil society groups will be expected to become involved.

Mr Ramesh said that the current pattern of open defecation was damaging the dignity of women and posed a danger to their security. He said that India would be free of the practice within ten years.

To some extent this is an admission of failure of the Nirmal Gram Puruskar scheme under which villages which became total open defecation free were awarded substantial prizes. However, only 25,000 of the 250,000 gram panchayati in the country have achieved the award. WASHCost research showed that in Andhra Pradesh most award winning villages slipped back from being total open sanitation free and the practice returned. Moreover many toilets that were built were not being used.

The move comes a few months after a team from WASHCost (India) went to Delhi to argue for a new focus on mainstreaming sanitation, pointing out that lack of safe sanitation is undermining efforts to bring safe drinking water to rural communities.

In its appeal to the Government, WASHCost (India) reported that from its research only one third of rural families have access to a safe toilet, and only one family in ten ensures that every member of the family uses it. In seven out of ten households open defecation is the norm for the whole family.

WASHCost pointed out that village level bodies such as Water and Sanitation Committees are non-functional. They need to be re-energised and supported with financial powers and capacity building. Women, who do lead the change to toilet use, are often excluded from decision-making.

Its submission said: “Sanitation is one of the weakest links in India’s development story, one of its biggest challenges and potentially its most costly mistake because it is undermining both health and economic development. Despite a decade of efforts by the Government of India and by state authorities, almost three quarters of the rural population still defecate in the open.”

Responding to the budget increase, Dr Snehalatha, coordinator of WASHCost (India) said: “I am very happy to see that with this announcement, the recommendations of WASHCost for increased allocations and making local organisations responsible is mainstreamed into policy.” Dr Snehalatha had been invited to sit on the 12th Five Year Plan planning committee and had argued strongly there for a focus on sanitation.

28-February 2012.

Peter McIntyre

Sources: The Hindu, 16 Feb 2012 & WASHCost (India)