For one of the most densely populated subcontinents in the world, India has the lowest sanitation coverage. A comprehensive strategy for promoting sanitation in rural areas of Indian states was first developed during the International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1980-’90). The percentage of rural households with a toilet in their own premises at the beginning of the decade was less than five per cent. The formulation and launching of the Centrally-Sponsored Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) was the first policy statement at the national level.

The programme provides central assistance to the states to construct standard two-pit design toilets in the premises of households belonging to the socially and economically disadvantaged sections. Affordable sanitation remains a challenge in the situation where approximately 100 million new latrines are needed to increase the coverage from the present 15 per cent to 85 per cent or more. Twenty-four million new latrines were estimated to be built before the year 2001. A drastic increase in construction of latrines has to take place, requiring effective methods for commercial and social marketing and cost effective technology.

The concept of rural sanitary marts

To address the scaling challenge, rural sanitary marts in India were conceived by UNICEF as “...retail outlets dealing with not only the materials required for construction of sanitary latrines and other facilities but also those items which are required as a part of the sanitation package.” The inventory of the typical mart in this model includes low cost ceramic pans and traps, RCC pit covers, pipes and such other material required for construction of a leach pit latrine as well as readymade cattle trough, food safe, cheap footwear, toilet soap, nail cutter and other items relating to personal hygiene and home sanitation. The exact composition of the inventory is decided locally at the mart level. The rural sanitary mart is expected to serve as counselling centre for those interested in building a toilet on their own. The mart is to have information on the entire range of technical options including possible variations in superstructure, and corresponding cost implications. A list of masons trained or possessing the skills required to construct such toilets are to be available in these marts. Rural sanitary marts in India have been supported by UNICEF for nearly a decade.

Non-government organizations submit their proposal to the state’s panchayats and rural development ministry for establishment of rural sanitary marts in a specified format detailing their activities, financial positon and asset base. NGOs are required to possess minimum amount of land so as to facilitate the production process. The panchayat samiti may also allot land to NGOs if they are not in a postion to provide for the same.

West Bengal’s Midnapore success story

Midnapore in West Bengal, with a population of eight million, is one of the largest districts in India. The Midnapore experiment is no less noteworthy. It is from here that the construction of very low-cost single/dual pit latrine construction on a large scale has started. The coverage of households by sanitary latrines in the district has increased to 60 per cent in 2001 from five per cent in 1991.

The Rural Sanitation Programme, supported by UNICEF, was implemented in the district under the supervision and guidance of the panchayats. The Ramkrishna Mission Lokasiksha Parishad (RKMLSP), a reputed non-government organisation was the nodal agency for implementation of the programme. RKMLSP worked on the premise that there existed a latent demand for latrines.

The Midnapore program aimed to bring about an improvement in the general quality of life in the rural areas, accelerating sanitation coverage in rural areas, generating felt need through awareness creation and health education, and bringing about a reduction in the incidence of water and sanitation related diseases. The development of commercial enterprises with social objectives (the rural sanitary mart) that coupled with other sanitation promotion activities (information, education and communication, production centres and credit mechanisms), formed an “alternative delivery system”.

In order to accelerate adoption of the latrine at the household level, latrine structures compatible with the dwelling units of the users were conceived. A range of latrine models at differential rates Rs 230 to Rs 2,800 was designed to cater to consumers. The option to obtain latrines that were less expensive actually catered both to poor households as well as households who were moderately motivated to invest in a latrine. Interestingly, less expensive latrines could be upgraded at a later stage with some additional attachments at an extra cost.

Production and delivery

One of the cornerstones of the Midnapore model was a process focus. Phase I activities include construction of workshops and procurement of moulds. Phase II activities involve construction of squatting plates and pans, staff selection, training of masons and initial information dissemination. Additional training and dissemination support is included in the last phase. Production centres for manufacturing latrines and a system for delivering the product to the households interested in purchasing sanitary latrines were first put in place. Production centres manufactured latrine components such as, concrete rings for pit lining, square and round squatting plates, pans and traps, pit covers and doors, and offered a range of technically appropriate options. Local women were trained to manufacture sanitary ware using locally available raw materials.

The latrines were promoted and installed through village and cluster level organisations using local material and labour. Representatives of the production centres also operated at the village level to motivate and prepare households to opt for latrines. Advocacy include wall writing, village motivation camps, home visits, exhibitions during festivals and village fairs, video and slide shows, village group meetings. The motivators are given an incentive for every household they motivate to adopt a latrine. An indirect benefit of the project is poverty alleviation, as the wage employment of 400,000 humandays.

Lessons for other states

The Midnapore model demonstrated how non-government organisations can mobilise and intermediate in communities that are financing their own sanitation services. All rural sanitary marts in the state, whether supported by UNICEF or the Department, are managed by non-government organisations. The UNICEF model experimented in Midnapore was, thus, adopted as the strategy for the state of West Bengal. 254 rural sanitary marts spread over an equal number of blocks in West Bengal were established over a decade. The remaining 87 blocks of the state are expected to be covered by 2001. Of the 216 marts for which ownership details are available, about 163 are UNICEF supported. The balance are supported by the Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Government of West Bengal. The successes in Midnapore in West Bengal have helped reorient strategies in the Restructured Central Rural Sanitation Programme.

Given the strong three tier panchayati raj system prevalent in the state, key local representatives at the block level Panchayat Samitis and district level Zilla parishad play a key role in NGO selection. Following the selection funds are released. Appoximately Rs 2.5 lakhs is released as per the norms in three instalments (directly to non-government organisations in the case of UNICEF supported marts, and the zilla parishad in the case of Department supported ones) contingent upon completion of tasks of each phase.

The approach UNICEF took quickened the pace of sanitation coverage, particularly in reaching the poor. It effectively changed people’s toilet habits from open defecation to the use of latrines. The project did not assume a traditional target-oriented approach; the emphasis was on defining a process and direction, which set the pace for achieving physical target.