It is appropriate to use Gandhi Jayanti to launch a fresh campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, to end open defecation, a goal that has eluded three previous missions spanning decades. It is vitally important to address the question of sanitation as Gandhi had – as a question of social reform, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal that government officials set an example is valuable. Gandhi had set sanitation as a more important goal than independence; so there is some historical resonance to the pledge of making India free of open defecation by his 150th birth anniversary in five years. But it is also important for the Swachh Bharat mission, which repackages the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan of the previous government, to learn from past mistakes in order to achieve better results. The present situation is appalling, not just because 60 per cent of rural Indians do not use a toilet, but also because over 20 million households that have received financial help in the past for toilets do not have functioning ones.
The cardinal reality about toilets and their use is that if there is anything more important than building toilets, then it is maintaining them well. State funding to build toilets addresses one issue – bringing toilets within reach of those who wish to use them but cannot afford them. But there is also the important issue of early users of toilets getting habituated to using them. This cannot happen unless newly built toilets remain usable. This is particularly important in rural areas where people have no difficulty finding lonely open spots to do their job. Toilets have to be clean and well-maintained in order for new users to continue using them.
There is a second, equally important, issue – the reluctance of some people to clean their own toilets, a job historically left to members of Dalit communities. A social journey has to be traversed before a person can take pride in keeping his own toilet clean. Gandhi waged a relentless war on this very subject. Thus, the mission could not have done better than to have in its scope a strong element of public education. The importance of social issues relating to use of toilets in India can be gauged from the fact that several absolutely poor African countries do not have India’s problem of open defecation and the health costs that go with it.
It is also worth asking how far the state should go in simply building toilets for poor households. The toilet culture has most successfully taken root in rural India when microfinance organisations have come forward to give loans to their more disciplined borrowers to build toilets. Households have to take ownership of their toilets if they are to become a part of their lives. Otherwise toilets will get built, but run to ground because of poor upkeep. Bangalore Agenda Task Force, a public-private partnership that built two dozen public toilets in the city, found that the real challenge was not finding the resources or technology to build toilets, but maintaining them in a manner that poor slum-dwellers could keep using them. Changed social attitudes have to walk in tandem with public spending if the battle against open defecation, lost for the last 60 years, is to be won in the next five.