“Worldwide about a billion people defecate in the open — including 600,000 in India. So when Sikkim in the far northeast of India was declared ‘Open Defecation Free’ in 2016, we were curious. How did this small state, capped by Himalayan peaks and dotted with Buddhist monasteries, manage it? How did Sikkim turn the tide?” asks PhD fellow Rushva Parihar.
His supervisor, Prof. Shyama V. Ramani, is an expert on (the evolution of) development economics. In her usual transparent way, she explains how “we are doing research on why some villages are clean and why some are not. This will help us to figure out how the not-clean places can catch-up with the clean ones. Evolutionary catch-up processes are a field we study at UNU-MERIT but only with respect to how countries develop industrial capabilities. Our novelty is to apply this framework to study how countries can attain the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN, such as SDG6 on hygiene and sanitation.”
A highlight of the 2016 World Toilet Day conference was the awarding of the Vimal Kshetra Prize to a select group of change-makers. “Vimal means pure and Kshetra means place,” explains Prof. Ramani. “The Vimal Kshetra winners were identified through field work* conducted by Rushva and Indian researcher Shankajit Sen to give recognition to ‘drivers’ of sanitation coverage and usage in India.”
One of the winners was Mr. Anil Raj Rai, Head of the Clean India Mission in Sikkim. Rushva explains: “After trekking through this beautiful region, we came to the conclusion that the drivers of change had been the state government and the trust of the people in the government. Everywhere we went villagers were quite happy with the government. This was incredible! That’s why we decided that the head of the Clean India Mission of Sikkim must be one of the Vimal Kshetra winners.”
The friendly and cheerful Mr. Raj Rai boils it all down to four key factors:
i. Women’s leadership
“Women are at the forefront of sanitation programmes in Sikkim and that has worked out well. A mother knows well what’s good for the family and for the children, better than the men. And when women take the lead, men are bound to follow. In my state, you will find a very huge proportion of women in the workforce. Fifty of the elected representatives in local bodies are women and I can say that having a lot of women as local leaders has given a lift to the programmes. If you come and visit any of the northern states, you will see no gender bias. We are very different from the other Indian states in this respect. We don’t have any dowry system in Sikkim. Women are looked upon with respect. We don’t consider them as lower than men and we do not treat them as inferior to men. Husband and wife are on par. In fact I would even say that women have a higher status than men.”
ii. A demand- and community-driven approach
“We learned the lessons from earlier programmes which were supply-driven (and which failed). For all sorts of reasons, the people ended up not using the toilets that had been built for them. We saw that supply-driven programmes don’t really work and understood that demand-driven and community-driven efforts are more sustainable. The real part of the Clean India campaign in Sikkim consisted in creating awareness and creating the demand. This was the longest period. We started in 2004 and achieved our goal in 2008. Only once people had understood the value of hygiene and sanitation and the need for toilets, did we construct the toilets. The construction part only came at the end the process and did not really take time, just one or two months.”
iii. Top-down and bottom-up synergy
“In Sikkim, there was a strong synergy between the providers and the takers. The campaign was initiated by the state leadership and was successfully relayed to the community, through the local village leaders who played a strong role — acting as a bridge between the state and the people. They did this by organising a lot of village meetings to explain the benefits of good sanitation practices (e.g. for development). In the end the community came forward with the demand for toilets. The people of Sikkim are happy about the Clean India programme because it has given them so many benefits, especially in health and education. They are very aware of this. For example school attendance has gone up since toilet facilities were provided. We also noticed that more girls are going to school since we installed machines dispensing sanitary napkins at low cost.”
iv. The carrot and stick approach
“The government cannot maintain all the toilets, so people are given an incentive to maintain their toilets themselves. Every household with a functional sanitary toilet receives a sanitation certificate which has to be renewed annually. This certificate is connected to state benefits and state grants, such as access to housing schemes, or food benefits. Maintenance itself is not difficult, especially when people recognise the advantages it brings. Our secret is the carrot and stick approach!”
Background facts & figures
The small northeastern hill state of Sikkim is the cleanest in India, according to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). All 610,577 inhabitants in Sikkim have latrines with high sanitation and hygiene standards; 100% of people in Sikkim use household / community toilets (while 98.2% of households have sanitary toilets). Its four districts are ranked among the top 10 districts in the nation for sanitation and cleanliness.
Sikkim was the first state to be declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) in 2016, followed by Himachal Pradesh and Kerala. The campaign for a clean Sikkim began in 2004, with the first sign of success coming in 2008 when the Indian Government gave it the Nirmal Rajya award — a national honour for cleanliness. In 2014, the Indian Government launched the Clean India Mission campaign. According to government data, nearly half of India’s population — 450 million people — have no access to toilets and therefore defecate in the open. India aims to become 100% open defecation free by 2019.
The 2016 World Toilet Day conference was co-hosted by UNU-MERIT and Prof. Ramani’s social enterprise Friend in Need India. The research project ‘Incentivising Rural Sanitation through Sustainability Audits’ was supported and funded by the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / S.Brodin; FINIndia / R. Parihar; S. Sen; Flickr / Sudipto Sarkar; Google / Landsat