The Nirmal Bharat Yatra
was a sanitation & hygiene awareness & behavior change campaign conceptualized & implemented by WASH United & Quicksand. It travelled 2,000 kms across rural parts of 5 Indian states between 2nd October 2012 & 19th November 2012.
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Once Upon a Toilet
I’ll admit I haven’t followed the major policy debates over sanitation. And while I’m sure they yield their own useful advice on how to create the most demand for toilets, I wanted to uncover the barriers that regular people in rural India face when they want to build toilets in their homes. Traveling for two months with the Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY) gave me access to some particularly sanitation-less communities, where I could speak with men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor.
Going into this mission, I kept in mind that nearly 700 million Indians lack access to sanitation facilities, partly due to a lack of demand for them, as the practice of open defecation is often considered normal despite its health risks. The NBY thus tries to generate demand among its attendees by providing them with fun ways to learn about sanitation and hygiene, in addition to giving them celebrity role models in sanitation behavior from the cricket and cinema worlds. It has been encouraging to see how we can bring people to the message, rather than imposing the message on people, but our success is still measured by their choosing to build and use a toilet rather than open defecating. Armed with an interest in their personal struggles and the desire to test a simple face-to-face approach at convincing someone to invest in a toilet, I set out to see what barriers and possibilities I could find.
I tried to do this first in Sangod, Rajasthan and then in Sahjanwa, Uttar Pradesh, the NBY’s third and fifth stops. I received a lot of help from Pankaj Sahu a journalist from Allahabad, and my fellow Yatra organizer Itika Gupta. Below are some of the lessons we learned, which together form a complex web of
obstacle, but also opportunities, for grassroots level sanitation demand generation.
1. Toilets are considered dirty by a large amount of the public
For Diwali, many Indians buy new clothes, clean their houses and repair those things that broke over the preceding year. It is considered a day of cleanliness and purity. We decided to play the Diwali purity card in Sahjanwa to try to persuade people to build toilets. Surely they thought a toilet was cleaner than going in a field? But they didn't. They said toilets were dirty. They said it would be impure to build toilets during a festival that encouraged purity.
2. Women don’t have the purse strings
The difficulties faced by women far outweigh those of men when it comes to open defecation. Open defecation forces women to expose themselves in ways considered culturally indecent. To avoid harassment, they must go further from their homes, and at inconvenient times of the day. Ultimately, though, they lack the familial positions of power to demand the building of a toilet, limiting them for fixing this daily ritual of shame and embarrassment. Many women we met said that their husbands would have to be present for them to spend any money, and that their husbands had no interest in building a toilet anyway.
3. Construction cartels exploit potential customers
Local contractors had created a cartel, where they collectively decided to inflate the price of building a toilet. A buyer who wanted a toilet had no option but to pay anywhere from Rs. 50,000 – 70,000 for a basic toilet. Given the average income in a village, this is a relatively huge sum, especially when the next best alternative is to not pay anything and be able to defecate in the open. Without awareness of government subsidization programs, and without political power to break cartels, those who want to build toilets are misled into believing that there is no feasible way for them to carry out that desire.
4. Locals mistrust sanitation campaigns
As we saw in Sangodh, Rajasthan, past programs, especially those sponsored by the government, have come to many of the villages we visited, giving false promises. As such, we were often mistaken for government officials, as we too were promoting the building of toilets and had come from far away. A man named Mahavir told the story of an appealing initiative launched a few years back by the development conglomerate HUDCO, in which toilets were advertised at a dirt-cheap price of Rs. 551. With massive subsidies behind them, HUDCO could make such an offer. But HUDCO, and the government, launched that program as part of a campaign to increase a specific statistic -- toilets per household – that has nothing to do with the quality of the toilet.
HUDCO failed to understand the implications of southeastern Rajasthan’s sandy soil, which shift dramatically during seasonal monsoons. They recklessly chose to use cheap cement sewage pipes, and within months most of the pipes they built had cracked, leading to clogging and severe malodor.
It was then that I realized toilet building was a process that required long-term trust building with the people. With Mahavir we tried to create an example, to show that our design worked and could be accessed for less than a tenth of the price quoted by contractors. Only time will tell if a trust building strategy is successful.
5. Small things derail big things
Back in Jigna village, we eventually convinced a woman named Parvati to build a toilet built on her land. One of the elder ladies from Jigna had excess cement and sand lying around which she was willing to donate for the toilet. It was decided that construction would begin the next morning. We returned the next morning to find that the woman who had agreed to donate the material had taken sides against Parvati in an unrelated neighborhood dispute. And Parvati had been convinced that the other lady was using her donation as a way to gain an upper hand in the conflict.
In Sangod, meanwhile, we thought we had persuaded Mahavir that a toilet was a good idea. He was so enthusiastic. We were ready to start building the next day. But, there too, when we returned, we found that he had been dissuaded by rumors floating around his neighborhood that a toilet was being built for him because of ties his family had with the local government, despite our non-governmental affiliation. The whole project fell through.
After my experiences it has become clear to me that building a toilet or solving India’s sanitation issues cannot be solved without considering a lot more than simply sanitation. Sanitation is connected to several other factors, education, household economics, gender politics, social taboos, and ineffectiveness of government programs to name a few. If I learned anything from this short experiment it is that pragmatic solutions require thorough contextualization and frank discussions with a project’s eventual beneficiaries.