100 Million Ways to Solve India’s Sanitation Problem

100 Million Ways to Solve India’s Sanitation Problem

Sanitation is a major concern for the 1.3 billion people who call India home. Diseases largely eradicated in most developed parts of the world – cholera, dysentery, typhoid – run rampant in the nation, where approximately 550 million people routinely relieve themselves in the open, a custom with roots in the caste system. But the cultural tide is turning, thanks in large part to Clean India (a.k.a. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan), a revolutionary initiative by the Indian government, launched in 2014, to supply 100 million new toilets to over 60 million households across the nation by 2019.

In addition to attracting millions in philanthropic support from such high-profile charities as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clean India campaign has resonated with pop culture. In fact, the most popular movie in India this past summer was about a toilet. It marks a major shift in discourse since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi first made a plea for change: “We are living in the 21st century… Can’t we make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?”

From Old World to New: Laying the Groundwork for a Clean India

In 2012, Indian census data showed roughly half of the nation’s households did not have a lavatory. The census reflected other incipient cultural changes as well, such as a greater dependency on mobile phones (53% of the population had one) and a dramatic shift to single-family households (where 70% of the population lived) from the more traditional joint-family households of generations past.

The findings moved the government to take action to elevate standards of living across Indian life and improve the nation’s image as a global economic hub. In a country where diseases associated with poor public health are among the leading causes of death, and the lack of lavatories has actively hindered economic growth, modernizing sanitation and hygiene systems took highest priority.

PR & Public Policy: Tackling a Public Health Emergency

This year, the Indian government announced it was nearly halfway to its 2019 goal, with an estimated 46 million new latrines installed (though reports vary). Building and installing 54 million additional toilets by 2019 will be one challenge. Getting people to use them will be quite another, requiring the cooperation of more than a billion citizens.

Resistance is an expected byproduct of any imposed cultural change, and the initial public response to Clean India proved no exception. To get more people on board, the government launched a massive advertising campaign and enlisted Bollywood stars to publicly endorse Clean India via social media, TV appearances, and other platforms. In discussing the initiative, some even invoke Mahatma Gandhi, rendering sanitation not only a public health issue, but also a matter of social justice.

Indeed it is, as poor public health conditions affect poor communities more severely than wealthy ones. Of the 1.7 million people who die worldwide each year from unsafe water and sanitary conditions, 35% are from India, with many of the victims from poor rural communities.

Winning (& Losing) Strategies for the Next Stage

In rural areas – where experts estimate unmet sanitation demand to be approximately $25 million – the perceived astronomical cost of toilets and associated plumbing systems discourages adoption to the detriment of public health. But social venture companies like Svadha work to educate these communities, offering affordable means to implement sanitation systems and thus galvanizing more widespread use. Going forward, government subsidies will incentivize the formation of more such companies and propel greater adoption by households and businesses. But progress is already well underway. In the large state of Maharashtra, for example, the Indian government reports an estimated 91% of the rural population now has access to a toilet, double the rate in 2014.

Yet many citizens are impatient to enforce the change, with reports of government officials and volunteers publicly shaming, fining, and/or revoking the public assistance benefits of those who defecate outdoors, drawing the ire of locals as well as human rights activists.

As the nation continues to modernize its infrastructure and technological advances like smartphones become more ubiquitous, innovations such as an app to inform users of the nearest public toilet will support lavatory access, especially among wealthier segments of the population. But not until sufficient awareness is raised across all factions of Indian society can the Clean India initiative fully realize its most important goal: saving lives.

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About the Author:

Nick Cunningham is an Industry Analyst at The Freedonia Group where he covers the US and global construction and building products industries.