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Amitabh Bachchan may be a great actor but even he can’t get Indians into toilets for Modi

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The programme should turn people into willing toilet users and not because Amitabh Bachchan may shame them for open defecation.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat drive four years ago, he said open defecation was a threat to the dignity of women. It wasn’t the first time India’s sanitation programme placed women’s honour at the heart of the toilet campaign.

From the Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) in 1986 to UPA’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) to Modi’s push, the government has urged men to build toilets for their “bahu-betis.

In parts of Uttar Pradesh, a toilet is currently branded as an izzat ghar. Wall paintings call on people to not let ‘daughters and daughters-in-law go far from home’. The policy document of Madhya Pradesh’s ‘Maryada (honour) campaign’ in 2011 had stated that “cleanliness is vital for women not just for their health but also their honour and protection”. A few years later, Vidya Balan reprimanded elders of a family in a campaign film for making their veiled daughter-in-law defecate in the open.

Linking women’s dignity and safety to toilets (“fear appeals”, as it is scientifically termed) digresses from the idea of open defecation as a public health issue that impacts men and women equally, framing it instead as a gendered one.


Also read: In mad race for targets, Modi’s Swachh Bharat could fumble the same way UPA plans did


Additionally, most of these messages have proliferated the Hindi belt, which suffers from poor sex ratio, low female literacy and employment. This belt is currently running campaigns to save the girl child, like Beti Bachao.

The behaviour change literature, in areas such as tobacco, substance abuse and cancer, has empirically shown that such contradictory messaging may confuse the target audience, and lead to counterintuitive outcomes. For instance, it might promote the idea that women are not empowered to take decisions on their own toilet behaviour, or that they need protection from men, or worse, propagate toilets as spaces that deride manhood.

It is perhaps to address these type of contradictions that one of the recent ads under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) shows Amitabh Bachchan and his bachha companion discussing how a real mard (man) is one who uses a toilet and encourages his family to do the same.

Measuring usage as outcome

The Swachh Bharat Mission prides itself as the first sanitation policy in the country that measures outcomes (ODF) instead of output (toilets) alone. This, in effect, should have meant renewed attention to altering sanitation behaviours. Although the latest annual progress report on the policy mentioned behaviour change thrice, ‘physical and financial coverage’ of toilets was the only enumerated criteria to evaluate it.

It was only in the Swachh Survekshan Gramin 2017, a survey conducted by the Quality Council of India (QCI), that toilet use was first mentioned.

Last October, a joint report by the Institute of Development Studies, Water Aid and Praxis found that in three ODF villages each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and two in Uttar Pradesh, the usage of toilets at the time of the study ranged between 1-63 per cent in surveyed households.

Till date, we have not seen a comprehensive study evaluating why so many of the government constructed toilets are never used. Is the problem at all behavioural, social or environmental or driven by other factors like the dearth of support for waste disposal? Given the vastly different driving factors for any behaviour in different parts of India, essentially, we are assuming people are not using toilets due to the same reasons, and thus doling out uniformly stale behavioural communication strategies to convince them.

Linking toilets to women’s safety or honour is just one of these.

Shaming the open defecators

Over the years, various campaigns in India have continuously tried to humiliate open defecators. This includes the Centre’s most recent Darwaza Band campaign that shows Bachchan and Anushka Sharma chasing errant squatters from the fields, together with a cheerleading squad of villagers.

In one such advertisement, Bachchan scares open defecators with a tiger. He ends two other advertisements with an angry message: “If you still don’t understand me, I will give you one whack”. In a community based campaign in Jharkhand, volunteers garland open defecators publicly.

Under the UPA’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the Swachhata doot campaign had women community volunteers blowing whistles at open defecators.

Even the Anushka Sharma campaign that encourages women to raise their voice against open defecation features women mocking male defecators and chasing them into toilets.

Last year’s radio campaign featuring Shaucha Singh was one of the few ads to address people’s concerns about the pit size of dry toilets. But even here, the protagonist makes fun of the intellect of neighbours who use their toilet sparingly out of the fear that the pit may fill up. He says that “it is not the pit, but the size of their brain that is small”.

This persistent theme of shame presupposes that grown men and women who are defecating in the open are stupid. And, that they deserve to be derided in public or worse, threatened to be slapped.


Also read: World’s biggest nationwide toilet building campaign is creating new markets in India


Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is otherwise. We have seen building toilets in rural homes does not in itself guarantee their use. Clearly, people are making conscious decisions to defecate in the fields. It may be wiser to address the target audience as rational adults, responsible for their own behaviours.

Coercion

In 2017, Jharkhand released a campaign with police officials fining open defecators and threatening to take away their lungis. The pressure on state governments to meet the 2019 deadline to end open defecation is forcing them to adopt these coercive methods. But, changing a fundamental centuries-old human habit like defecation requires more patience and thought.

What should be done

All the above campaigns have underlined the link between open defecation and health outcomes (Darwaza band toh bimari band), but only after shaming open defecators. Future interventions need to highlight these health concerns more prominently and creatively.

The Shaucha Singh radio campaign, perhaps for the first time, targets the long-held myths about toilets systematically. These include pit size, the perceived need for a larger home to construct a toilet, the belief that toilets need a lot of water and are claustrophobic.

Most behavioural theories say that individual actions are informed by our immediate social networks, the communities we participate in, and social norms. In a community where the notion of faeces is tied to caste, government cannot push people into using toilets without targeting such beliefs.

The goal here should be true to the spirit of the jan andolan or mass movement that the SBA claims to be – turn people into willing toilet users and not because it reduces the dignity of women or Amitabh Bachchan may shame them.

(This is the second in a four-part series on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Read the first part here).

Pritha Chatterjee is a journalist and a PhD student in population health sciences at Harvard University.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I was five when my mother shared a marketing insight with me. None of these film stars actually uses the Lux soap they model for, she said. Not sure how many Indians base their choices on what Mr Bachchan says in public service ads, especially when he implores them to pay their taxes honestly.

  2. What a biased title “Amitabh Bachchan may be a great actor but even he can’t get Indians into toilets for Modi”. Does the PM Modi get any personal benefit by getting people to use toilets? As an Indian, I sincerely wish the program to be a success regardless of which party implements it. This is a black spot in our democracy that even after 70 years of Independence, we need to emphasize on toilets. This should have been a missive in the 1950s itself.

  3. Long on complaints, short on suggestions, recommendations… This article is like an average Indian on the composition of the Indian cricket team. I expected to read a more insightful article of the author has the credentials she claims.

  4. The sustained efforts for making people use toilets will eventually turn the tide in favour of 100% use of toilets. Ad campaign of all sorts and campaign by volunteers are all required. Scare and persuasion are also required for achieving high success rate. Basically, for many older people going for open defecation in rural area may be because of habit formed over several decades and they may have constipation when they use toilets.

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