Why we should not set ‘targets’ for ODF

From Dr. Nipun Vinayak

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is a revamped programme on sanitation launched by the H’ble Prime Minister, with a clear focus on outcomes. The programme was drafted carefully, looking at learnings from past sanitation programmes in the rural sector. Despite many programmes, the rural sanitation coverage rate did not get much success, for varied reasons. The primary reason was inability to implement programme in a pure ‘demand driven’ way, and lack of capacities to trigger behavioural change, required for this demand generation. The programme thus, more or less remained a government programme, with focus on targets.

The Prime Minister has desired SBM to be a programme with an approach of citizen involvement, and not a top-down Government programme. The programme therefore provides flexibility to States to choose their approach and implementation strategy, that best suits them. The role of Government of India is to keep the focus on behaviour change, so that results are sustainable. Government of India also focuses on achievement of open defecation-free (ODF) villages.

ODF basically signifies emphasis on collective behaviour change. There have earlier also been attempts to achieve this through institution of a reward scheme called Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP). The scheme provided a cash award and an opportunity to be photographed with the President of India, to sarpanches who made their villages Nirmal. The scheme helped in raising the collective consciousness towards sanitation – however, competition and carrot of award, soon brought in misreporting/ construction of toilets without due behaviour change or involvement of entire communities. Independent evaluations of NGP awardee villages brought out that most of the NGP villages slipped back and could not maintain the ODF status. (The scheme has been discontinued now).

A similar thing happened in case of toilet targets. Pressure on achieving numbers resulted in claim of close to 70% rural coverage with access to toilets in 2011. However, the census 2011 revealed that actual usage of toilets was much lesser – close to 30%.

All these lessons have been internalised and gone into the new SBM, where we have to be careful not to repeat mistakes of the past; and strive to keep the focus on behaviour change for sustainable outcomes. This is also in line with the new SDGs that emphasise sustainability of outcomes.

Mechanisms are being put into place to carefully implement this new strategy. The term ODF has been defined for uniform parameters. In order to increase State ownership (as per the Constitution’s mandate), the States have been asked to devise their own mechanisms for verifying ODF.  They have been given indicative guidelines for the same. Focus on ODF has been given through repeated interactions with States and districts. The States are also being guided and helped on developing their capacities in community engagement to implement the programme in a real demand-driven manner.

The feedback from the States is that now there is much more genuine effort at achieving outcomes. They share that much of this is because there is no pressure of ‘targets’. There is a broad vision and goal of 2019, and States are doing their best to achieve that. Around 38,000 villages have been declared as ODF themselves by the States, and initial feedback indicates up to 90% of these may be verified as actually ODF. The process of verification is ongoing. A mechanism for second level check of third party sample verification through GoI is also being put into place.

Any attempt to set ‘targets’ for ODF may be retrograde and detrimental to the programme. The ODF villages translate into toilets, and there is already a road map of the expected number of toilets to be constructed each year till 2019.  A direct targeting of ODF will not be desirable, since it will roll out a number chasing attempt by the districts, and also false reporting; which will affect sustainability.

*The writer is Dr. Nipun Vinayak, Director, Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India

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