Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: building upon past mistakes

An extremely appreciable focus on providing toilet in every school can be a game changing intervention for improving public sanitation and in directly for educational enrollment and retention, particularly of girls. I also admire the impatience with which central government has started action already through MHRD. However, it will do no harm if the planners will read a report on water quality of Central Ground Water Board, 2010 and notice how ill-considered policies implemented in haste could sometimes do more damage than good. Shallow hand pumps and tube wells were promoted through public policy and problem of arsenic and a few other contaminants have led to significant health damage in different parts of the country. Deep tube wells did not have this problem. Poor people could not afford deep tube well even after the source of the problem was diagnosed. They suffer more even today. Should we replicate a standard design of toilet all over the country? Will that be worse than not making any toilet? Should we not consult groundwater board, meteorological department, All India Soil SurveyOrganization, and other such agencies to look at geo-climatic zoning and identify boundary conditions for the kind of toilet design that might be suitable for different regions?. The regions having high or low groundwater and in different soil condition with varying extent of water availability will not be served by a common design. Just the physics of the toilet pot can determine how much water is required for cleaning the excreta. There are designs which require just about 2-3 liters water. In some areas dry deep pit might be useful. Of course, there is also a lot of experience available with various institutions which may have learned from the mistakes of the past. We can also launch a countrywide competition for location specific designs of toilet at low cost. The use of human urine and excreta as input into small biogas plants can also be tried at a few locations. We must understand that given shortage of water in different parts of the country, a design which needs 10-12 liters for cleaning ( as unfortunately majority of the designs need) will get clogged in no time. We don’t want to create toilets which will not be serviceable round the year. Need to clean them up will have to be internalized by the students as a cultural value. DRDO has bio-toilets which is a very interesting and viable technology and must be incorporated in the Abhiyan wherever feasible. Already DRDO has licensed it to more than 40 entrepreneurs on non-exclusive basis.Whenever anyone used to come to Sabarmati ashram to join the freedom struggle, Gnadhiji asked him to first pick up the bucket and broom and clean the toilets. It took them a while to understand the connection between this act and the freedom struggle. Swachh Bharat movement must succeed. A weekly exercise to clean environment within and outside the school will help. The Land Army movement by Dr K M Munshi began with cleaning clogged drains in Chhatarpur village on the outskirts of Delhi. We need a similar movement to mobilize the youth and village community. In prosperous villages, generating funding for school toilets from within the village will help. Community ownership of assets ensures their maintenance. One lesson from the people’s movement of making lacs of check dams and farm ponds in Saurashtra in Gujarat is that initially, 70 per cent contribution was by people and remaining by government. Later the ratio was reversed. It is well known that in some areas dalit children are forced to clean the toilets and that should be a seriously tracked and censured. Diversified designs, community ownership, mobilizing industrial contribution under CSR and tracking location specific fit between toilet design and local conditions (geo-chemical, drainage and hydrological) need to be considered. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan must learn the right lessons from the mistakes of the past and create a democratic, efficient and effective model of solving a national problem in a time bound manner. Local innovations will make program more participative and cost effective.



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