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Swachh Bharat: Appeal to people's self-interest for better sanitation

As an Indian, I applaud this movement. The lack of sanitation in our country is shocking with nearly 60 per cent of the world's open defecation happening in India.

Akshay Mehra        Last Updated: November 13, 2014  | 11:59 IST
Akshay Mehra
Akshay Mehra

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day, and launched on Gandhi Jayanti, with a lot of fanfare and savvy viral marketing, taking a leaf out of the ice bucket challenge, when the prime minister nominated nine well-known citizens to join him in the mission.

As an Indian, I applaud this movement. The lack of sanitation in our country is shocking with nearly 60 per cent of the world's open defecation happening in India. According to the World Bank, poor sanitation costs India $53.8 billion a year. And the issue is not just limited to defecation. Anyone walking on our roads can see the general lack of cleanliness. The Lifebuoy Swasthya Chetna City cleanliness survey showed that even the national capital Delhi was ranked a poor ninth out of the 18 state capitals that were reviewed. The main factors that pulled Delhi down in the rankings were the unavailability of dustbins at public places and filthy public toilets.

Can this sustain?
So, while I applaud the focus on hygiene that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is bringing, I am worried that there is a risk of it becoming just one more government programme that will fizzle out. We have to go beyond photo-ops for celebrities to making changes in the way we approach public sanitation in the country.

What we need are solutions that are sustainable and self-reinforcing, and do not require one-off "interventions" to get things done. Good sanitation should be in people's selfish self-interest, rather than rely on their good intentions.

In fact, the end goal has to be that good sanitation happens on its own without even meriting an abhiyaan!

No CSR, please!

The biggest problem with any social programme run by well meaning NGOs and corporate houses is that they just are not scalable. I am especially wary of making this a CSR activity, which essentially means that it will be done for one or two years; make some changes in a few villages; and then interest will peter out, and companies will go looking for the next challenge.

The only way to make this sustainable is to make it a business, and a profitable one at that. Business and profit, and not usually associated with public services. But the reality is that there are no competing public services here, so the choice that people have is sanitation versus no sanitation. It's not about mere degrees of improvement.

An interesting business model innovation is the "Clean Team" business that was the result of a partnership between OpenIDEO, Unilever and WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor) in Ghana. Clean Team provides a subscription-based chemical toilet service with no upfront charge for the toilet hardware. Instead, customers pay a weekly or monthly subscription to access the sanitation service. A chemical toilet is placed in their home and then serviced, emptied and cleaned. The entrepreneurs who run the service make money by servicing the toilets.

We need to think about such business models that will make this a profitable business rather than merely hoping that delivery of public services will change on their own.

Aligning incentives

Public services delivery has multiple stakeholders from the resident (or the generator of waste), to the government, local municipalities, sanitation workers, transporters, and waste disposers. One of the things that I have seen, across industries where there are lots of interdependent yet independent participants, is that if the incentives of the stakeholders are not aligned, then the system will never achieve the expected outcomes. So, for instance, even if the central government wants to push for better sanitation, but if there are not enough waste disposal sites, there is not going to be any long-term change, at best there will be spurts of activity.  

The only way to fix this is to look at each player in the value chain and ensure that each of them has an interest to work towards the desired outcomes. The incentives don't need to be limited to money; in fact, in organisations it could be social (higher prestige, faster promotion) or emotional (being part of the greater cause, being one of the 'chosen few').

An interesting idea that the Gates Foundation is exploring is the Urban Sanitation Markets, where they are aiming to provide a platform for private sector providers to profit from the byproducts of sanitation such as energy and fertiliser generation from fecal matter. I think this is a good start, but still incomplete solution. What would be really interesting would be for them to take this further and provide a common platform for the different participants in the sanitation value chain to "trade" their services. For instance, a transport company could potentially bid for picking up garbage from a certain locality and while another could bid for cheaper and greener waste disposal. Having a sanitation market platform to do this could truly revolutionize the sector, and ensure that the incentives are always aligned across the different participants.

As you can see, I am deliberately keeping government intervention, as the first step, away from this article. The reason is that we need to think about sanitation just as we think about any business opportunity that an organisation has to solve and the only solutions that have any hope of sustaining are those that do not just rely on people's good intentions but rather make a good business proposition. And once that proposition is defined then the delivery could be either by government or non-governmental agencies.

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