13/11/2016 4:49 PM IST | Updated 19/11/2016 9:33 AM IST

Swachh Bharat: It's Time To Stop Sweeping Accountability Aside

In February 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was replying to the Lok Sabha debate on the president's address. While responding to Mulayam Singh Yadav's criticism of his failure to uphold his poll promise of cleaning up Assi Ghat in Varanasi, he couldn't resist a dig: "When Mulayam Singh ji spoke about Assi Ghat cleanliness, I was wondering whether he was giving me a report of the UP Government, or the Centre?"

The humour was apparent. The famous and miserably dirty ghat in the ancient city of Varanasi is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is not only under the rule of Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, but also administered by his own son, who is the chief minister of the state.

The hullabaloo surrounding this big-ticket Central programme distracts us from the fact that constitutionally, sanitation is a state subject.

On a closer look, this repartee was a forensic moment that summarised one of the key problems in the sanitation sector in India: Accountability.

Exactly who is responsible for sanitation outcomes in India? Since 1986, almost $3 billion has been spent on building toilets alone. According to reports, under the current government, $31 billion is planned for spending under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Interestingly, the hullabaloo surrounding this big-ticket Central programme distracts us from the fact that, constitutionally, sanitation is a state subject. It appears on the State List of the Indian Constitution. The Centre merely has to allocate and release funds, monitor progress and provide the state government's support and advice.

The Central government has eagerly advertised itself as being at the forefront of sanitation programmes —claiming its successes and ignoring its failures. From the Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) in 1986, to the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999, to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in 2012 to the present-day Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, only the name of the programme has changed — each has consistently focused on being a toilet building exercise.

The saas-bahu chemistry between state and Centre on sanitation programmes can put Bollywood to shame. For years, it has been quid pro quo, where states have gladly taken the money, and then done very little after, while letting the Centre take credit. The Centre has also been unable to disburse funds on time, or wrangled over the state government submitting fraudulent data. India's sanitation programmes are plagued with allegations of graft, where ghost toilets reported on excel sheets are found missing on the ground. Hence it's no wonder, as per the national census, that from a measly 1% rural toilet coverage in 1980, we reached only 31% three decades later in 2010.

However, the problem of accountability is not just between the states and the Centre alone. It has seeped into sanitation programme delivery in both rural and urban India.

Under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan-Gramin (Rural), there is definitely a serious effort to address accountability. District Magistrates report on daily and weekly progress on toilet coverage directly to the Prime Minister's Office in Delhi. Mobile app-based accounting of toilets is being pushed for. However, this is not helping to improve toilet coverage nor, and more importantly, ensure their usage.

Building reporting metrics on usage rather than counting constructed toilets can help us get closer to achieving real swachhata.

The problem lies more with delivery than reporting. In rural India, panchayats are supposed to be responsible for implementation while government departments at district and block levels do record-keeping. The increase in subsidy for household toilet construction ($200), along with the push for construction, has led to outsourcing of construction to local contractors. As they milk profits on construction materials, officials do the same with approving and processing applications and payments. Squeezed by graft at both ends, households end up with either dysfunctional or "ghost" toilets. Since recipients often hardly care if they have a toilet or not, they are least bothered, and are happy to play along.

This is why experts have repeatedly urged the government to focus on behaviour change and awareness. But as research conducted by Accountability Initiative shows, only 1% of the total budget on awareness in SBA was spent in 2015-2016, which is a drop of 3% from 2014-2015.

In urban India, where awareness is not a concern, but managing infrastructure is, neither the Swachh Bharat-Urban nor the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) programmes address it. The former is responsible for toilet construction and the latter for sewerage and septage management. Both programmes have allocated zero funds for maintaining sanitation infrastructure.

The government is looking for answers to the "who" and "how" of maintaining sanitation infrastructure in a public-private partnership (PPP). But this brings in a different accountability crisis. Private companies make a quick exit when they realise that profitability is low, and that municipalities and departments do not honour contracts and make payments on time. Moreover, municipalities in India have been systematically weakened over the years in terms of their staff and funding and have subcontracted their work to private agencies. It is surprising that instead of learning lessons from the PPP approach to urban waste management in a few cities, and then phasing it, the government has decided to juggernaut all alternative models of urban sanitation under the wheels of private contracting.

Instead of soliciting non-state agencies to play a central role in sanitation... the focus should be on strengthening the formal delivery mechanisms...

Given the accountability conundrum between states and Centre, and within service delivery programmes, the government should consider a few alternatives.

First, building reporting metrics on usage rather than counting constructed toilets can help us get closer to achieving real swachhata. Along with tracking usage, greater transparency in operations will help weed out corruption. Second, deskilled and understaffed local bodies and departments need significant support to manage sanitation challenges. Instead of soliciting non-state agencies to play a central role in sanitation and solid waste management, the focus should be on strengthening the formal delivery mechanisms with more funding and capacity to deliver. It is important here to note that young, educated, well-trained and motivated line staff was a key reason behind Sikkim's phenomenal success in sanitation. Third, state governments must own the programme. With Swachh Bharat seen as a Central government pet project, state governments are internally worried of their success getting usurped. There should be glory enough for all.

Accounting for toilets on paper is a poor substitute to accountability. By enabling the latter, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan can make a real difference.

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