Until 2014, 600 million people (approximately 60 per cent of the world’s open defecators) were practicing open defecation across the country. Of these, 550 million were in rural India. This has changed quite dramatically. The open defecation number has dwindled to 100 million. As many as 5,20,000 villages, 530 Districts and 25 States and Union Territories are open defecation free (ODF). Rural India is poised to become open defecation free by October 2, 2019.

This was unthinkable a few years ago but it happened. How did it happen? And are there lessons for other schemes in the country?

The scheme had the desired political support. For any scheme to succeed in a democracy, it not merely requires political acceptance but huge amount of political support. The Swachh Bharat not only had political support, it was driven by the Prime Minister himself. This made a huge difference. Aligned with this was the belief in the achievability of the goal at each level of governance and delivery. The PM-CM-DM-VM (Prime Minister-Chief Minister-District Magistrate-Village Motivator) model worked. This connect was consciously created. It worked wonders.

The State governments were taken into confidence. This happened through massive engagement with the States. Secretary Parameswaran Iyer set the pace by not “dictating” terms from Delhi but by travelling down to each State to interact intensively with the Chief Secretaries and the field functionaries.

The visits were not limited to the State headquarters but entailed going down to the villages to get a better understanding of ground realities that constituted very useful input in formulating policies. This was indeed a game changer. The intensity of engagement and the passion that went with it helped “buy-in” from various stakeholders. A concrete value proposition in terms of benefits likely to accrue was conveyed to the stakeholders.

Organising workshops at the national and regional levels helped the field level functionaries to understand the nuances of implementing such a scheme where behavioural change was the key to success. Mere setting up of toilets would not have helped, the focus needed to be on their usage. These workshops also provided an opportunity for feedback from the field.

The District Magistrates were incentivised through interactions in Delhi and other capacity building workshops. Swachh Survekshan Grameen 2018 was constituted to provide healthy competition amongst the Districts. This yielded significant increase in momentum on the ground.

Communication, the key

An effective communication strategy was evolved to bring about behavioural change at the ground level. This was supplemented with mass media at the national level. Well known personalities were roped in to convey messages that had the desired impact in the context of usage of toilets and twin pit toilets. The SBM foot soldiers and “Swachhagrahis” participated in triggering community behaviour change and sustaining it through inter-personal communication.

There has been significant impact of Swachh Bharat Mission at the grassroots level, both in the context of health parameters as well as economic indicators. A WHO study released in August 2018 reported that Swachh Bharat would have led to a saving of around 3,00,000 lives by 2019 and around 1,50,000 lives would be saved annually thereafter.

UNICEF in its report, “The Financial and Economic Impact of SBM in India (2017)” has estimated that an ODF village in rural India makes substantial savings every year. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has released a study that shows significant improvements in diarrhea prevalence and stunting among children in ODF districts, compared to otherwise similar non-ODF districts.

The success of Swachh Bharat Mission has huge lessons for those that are in the business of implementing government schemes. What really stands out and needs replication is the approach that was adopted by Iyer himself. Most of the senior civil servants prefer to carry out their tasks in the comfort of their rooms in Delhi.

They need to move out where there is action. When the senior most civil servant moves out, those below will do so as well. It requires effort but is critical because such visits not merely convey a purpose, the top officials can get a feel of the ground realities.

They will also be benefited by extremely useful feedback. Corrective steps can be taken both at the policy level as well as in operations. The disconnect that exists between the policy makers and the field can be bridged.

Effective communication (as distinct from publicity) is imperative to reach out to the beneficiaries. A lot of time gets spent on publicity to please a “select audience” and these campaigns are launched in places that are beyond the reach of the beneficiary. Swachch Bharat made an effort to influence the mind and behaviour of the beneficiary. Publicity followed. Talking was done at an appropriate place and appropriate time and, more importantly, was accompanied with “walking”. “Talking” (sometimes only talking) before “walking” has makes little difference on the ground. There was a lot of emphasis with regard to action on the ground under Swachch Bharat. This is how this scheme is different from other government schemes. There is a lesson for others in this context as well.

Apart from the above, what is also worthy of emulation is the clarity of thought and articulation at each level. The commitment and the passion of the team are quite remarkable. Roll out plans have been meticulously chalked out and critical input is welcomed.

There is indeed a lot to learn from the success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.

The writer is former Union Coal and Education Secretary