Will history be created in 2012? Will the countryside be free of open defecation over the next five years? Does doubling of rural sanitation coverage from a humiliating low of 22 per cent to an all time high of 44 per cent in the recent past confirms such claim? Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is not making romantic foray into rewriting history but is coming to terms with his long held view that a toilet or lack of it is the indicator of country's health, not the raging bull at the stock markets. The Total Sanitation Campaign launched by Singh's ministry has stretched into the last of 597 districts to turn the rural landscape free from squatting.

Not exactly Indian Idol but there is prize for villages singing chorus against open defecation. Till this year, some 4,959 villages had bagged Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP), a clean village prize, for having flush toilets in every household and school. Ranging from Rs.2 lakh for the smallest village to Rs.50 lakh for the biggest district, the award has seemingly given fillip to the subsidy-driven toilet construction program as villages compete to gain a rare recognition. The officials at the ministry are upbeat about the government’s current campaign that has not only shown results but has generated enthusiasm amongst rural households for toilets.

Toilet adoption is not a linear function of affordable technology, cash incentive and public recognition.

 •  Another freedom struggle needed
 •  Solutions known, progress slow The flip side of this otherwise incredible script is that despite millions of toilets having been built, hundreds of millions of rural people still defecate in the open every day. Else, how could one witness scores of bare bottoms along the rail tracks doing what they must on an early morning? To add insult to injury, reports indicate that a significant number of people in the awarded villages are reverting to the age-old habit, adding weight to Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul’s oft quoted view that 'most Indians suffer from claustrophobia once inside an enclosed toilet’ and to demonstrate the fact that sanitation is more than just doling out subsidy to build toilets.

A recent e-discussion on 'solutions exchange', an interactive electronic platform set up by the UNDP, has made three startling revelations. First, the emphasis of the sanitation campaign has been more on achieving targets than on transforming behaviour. Second, the focus is on multiplying the number of toilets than socio-engineering of the closet into peoples' lives. Third, the award has helped officials coerce people into constructing toilets without being explained the reason for doing so. No wonder, the campaign considers targets significant than encouraging and acknowledging exemplary show of community-driven innovations in toilet adoption.

The sheer focus on constructing toilets is seemingly the root cause of the problem! Government's support, in the form of differential cash subsidy to match poverty groupings, is grossly inadequate for building the entire structure. Not only does the subsidy, ranging anywhere from Rs.900 to Rs.1500, bring class confrontation at the village level to the fore, it warrants an equal or more contribution from the user to complete the toilet construction. No surprise, therefore, a large number of incomplete toilets abound in rural areas. Ironically, restricting user's choice to a single toilet design also limits its widespread adoption.

Undoubtedly, the idea of a toilet cannot be ignored but it must also be understood that cash subsidy alone cannot trigger toilet adoption. Had that been the case, prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana would have long achieved freedom from squatting. Clearly, toilet adoption is not a linear function of affordable technology, cash incentive and public recognition. Social scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles are examining the factors behind the society’s 'collective blindness about the practice of open defecation and their reluctance to adopt change'. The research findings, available later this year, will also examine the reasons for a toilet to be low on priority in the household shopping list.

Misplaced policy emphasis has led to the belief that defecation within the privy of a closet is the only solution. Sheltering women from ignominy is added to support the argument. Yet, there are a number of instances where women shy away from using a toilet. The gender dimension of sanitation is often limited to engaging the other half in the campaign; women's specific needs rarely get factored into the toilet design. Else, how could the toilet design be gender-blind to the fact that women spend three times more in toilet than men? Unlike in cities where public toilets for men and women have distinct designs, public toilet designs for rural areas are unisex in nature.

Increasing sanitation coverage in rural areas may need an out-of-box thinking. Building toilets is just one half of the battle, the other half is to make people use them. The numbers of villages winning Nirmal Gram Puraskar may seem impressive, only if uncovered villages are not taken into count. Some 5,000 villages winning the award leave a staggering 595,000 villages waiting for similar recognition! Should the vast majority of uncovered villages be ridiculed, thereby applying humiliation to opening up new, creative possibilities of bringing about change?

Sociologists contend that humiliation is fundamentally an experience, which questions one's perceived assumptions about oneself. Unless people start questioning their beliefs and practices, engineering change through toilets and targets may remain a dream. When Mahatma Gandhi insisted that anyone joining his ashrams had to first clean toilets, he was striking at the heart of the compact of humiliation.