Total sanitation is one of the major challenges confronting the Government for a long while. The Government at the Centre and in the states have experimented with a variety of ideas, schemes and programmes to fix the sundry issues related to better sanitation and hygiene. Between the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there have been many variations of the Government’s sanitation programme.

The upshot has definitely resulted in a better outcome than was ever visible. Today, most of our educational institutions and many of the approximately 700-odd districts have been sanitised. If we go by the intent of the Government of India, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, then India is poised to be a fully sanitised country by 2019.

However, the entire planning and investment may go down the drain if the principal stakeholders i.e. the hoi-polloi are not sensitised to the imperatives of the mission to sanitise our country.

While executing the Government’s sanitation campaign in many of the districts including Burdwan, where one worked in various administrative capacities, we had varied experiences regarding the challenges associated with the solid and liquid waste management.

We came across seemingly intractable obstacles, but could tackle these due to a synergized approach of all the stakeholders. The initiative started with the Government’s clear direction to ensure universal provisioning of a sanitary toilet for every household, school and ICDS centre.

Before we executed the task, we had prolonged multi-level brainstorming sessions with all field level functionaries and stakeholders, including officials, public representatives, NGOs, CBOs, media and members of the public. The relevant issues and aspects were discussed, dissected and decisions taken at such sessions.

We had to countenance the challenges in terms of resources ~ human, material, financial. Financial support was available for the identified BPL households and the APL households were supposed to fend for themselves. But practical ground realities were different because of flawed identification of beneficiaries.

Hence, by convergence of various Government funds with CSR and philanthropic support from different corners, we could resolve the problem of finances under express Government backing for the same. But, finding finances was an easier task than finding trained masons to construct the requisite number of toilets against all the unanticipated hazards of weather and popular resistance while also reining in the various vested interests with different axes to grind.

But the biggest challenge undeniably was convincing people to use the toilets after these were constructed. We discovered that many of these toilets were being used as animal sheds or stores for cowdung cakes and other stuff.

Despite a well-planned multimedia approach to highlight the imperatives of sanitation and hygiene, there were people who resisted the idea of using a sanitary toilet on different excuses. Many people simply did not use their toilets because they were habituated to open defecation for ages. The ‘Poop in a Group’ practice also meant that people would not give up a habit which promised them the pleasure of gossiping and personal interaction during open defecation.

Depending on their socio-cultural and economic backgrounds, we formulated customised plans to inform and educate them about the need to inculcate the habits of sanitation and hygiene. The notions of profanity attached to toilets at home were delicately dealt with and tackled.

Dedicated teams were formed for every small hamlet, village and ward that would hold regular meetings with the inhabitants to make a micro-plan for each of them. After the precise number of required toilets was worked out, close monitoring was ensured for construction in accord with predetermined deadlines. During field visits, it was found that more than finances, it was a mindset embedded in hardened habits, cultural norms or ignorance which was a major stumbling block.

Those who were above the poverty line (APL) would often regret that they did not have enough money to construct toilets. Yet they had enough money to spend on cigarettes, liquor, cable television and the mobile phone. among others. Many of them boasted a TV set, a refrigerator, a tractor, a motorcycle and other material goods.

We would persuade them that they needed to cut down on the seemingly unimportant expenditure to immediately construct a toilet as doing so would save them the fair amount of money that they spent on medical services, not to speak of the lost wages due to the loss of mandays because of poor health.

Our data regarding the presence of faecal material in our food because of open defecation, our circuitous consumption of faeces via food-chain that harms our health and the risk of snakebite during open defecation also helped in convincing them.

But where all persuasions failed, we even resorted to veiled threats of discontinuing government benefits and services or threatening to arrest them for compromising the cause of public health. Priority cards were issued to those citizens who not only had toilets, but also used the same. The rural poor were gradually convinced about the perils of open defecation.

“Morning and Evening Surveillance Committees”, so-called, were formed to guard against deviations. The teams would visit pre-identified public places of open defecation, and generally early in the morning. The members would often hide to discourage the open defecators when the latter changed their timing due to persistent nagging of the surveillance teams.

Different team leaders used different approaches including whistling at the open defecators, engaging them in prolonged dialogue when they had the utmost morning pressure to defecate, and requesting them to cover their faeces with earth to prevent possible infection. Team members would often cover it if the villagers refused, only to shame them. They would offer flowers as a mark of ‘Gandhigiri’, display photographs of people who use sanitary toilets, and then honour such people.

Children were urged to persuade their parents regarding the need for a sanitary toilet at home. Women were asked to convince their husbands to do the same because of the indignity of defecating in the open and the offences committed during the wee hours.

We heard inspiring stories of the places where women sold their jewellery to construct toilets, girls refusing marriage into households without a sanitary toilet or children asking for toilets instead of new clothes during festivals. A huge festivity and celebration marked the sanitization of every Gram Panchayat, block, municipal body, or district as a toilet at home symbolised an enormous accomplishment.

Many districts in the country have been sanitised. West Bengal tops the chart with more than two-third of the state fully sanitised. Much has been achieved; much more remains to be done. Even the fully sanitised districts need to be vigilant against relapse for want of surveillance.

A well-planned sanitation and hygiene programme not only results in a drastic reduction of the health budget of individual households, but also helps reduce morbidity and mortality. We just hope that all the stakeholders will soon realise the need to end what can be described as the curse and disgrace of open defecation.

The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views expressed are personal and not those of the Government.