Swachh Bharat Mission in Bihar stumbling due to govt corruption and slow construction of toilets, say villagers

Patna: The progress of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-hyped programme to make the country open defecation free (ODF) under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has been lackadaisical in Bihar, so much so that the evidence is in plentiful supply outside the capital city of Patna. While the state aims to achieve the target of making all 38 districts ODF within the national target of 2 October, 2019 — Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary — officials in the concerned department claim it will be achieved by March.

The SBM website pegs the toilet coverage in rural Bihar at 99.36 percent. In Patna, however, only 27.40 percent of the rural area is ODF, as per the website. Faecal matter abounds along the defunct R Block-Digha railway line which passes through the Secretariat, Punaichak, Shivpuri and Rajiv Nagar localities in the state capital. Even in Khagaul, on the outskirts of the state capital, the mobile toilet is not used by the residents of slum areas. For reasons which become obvious at first glance. “It stinks,”  said Ganesh Ram, who resides under an over bridge in a slum near Danapur railway station in Khagaul. “The latrine is littered with faeces.”

Villagers in Bihar's Navidha say the Swachh Bharat Mission has been a letdown for a myriad of reasons. Image courtesy: Ramashankar Mishra

Villagers in Bihar's Navidha say the Swachh Bharat Mission has been a letdown for myriad reasons. Image courtesy: Ramashankar Mishra

Five districts — Sitamarhi, Rohtas (Sasaram), Begusarai, Kaimur (Bhabua) and Sheikhpura — have been declared ODF. Similar efforts are underway in around a dozen other districts. Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, speaking at an event in Patna recently, said the state would be declared ODF before Bihar Diwas celebration on 22 March. However, till 8 January, other districts with extremely low ODF coverage — Arwal (3.13 percent), Madhubani (5.17 percent), Araria (8.22 percent), Madhepura (9.44 percent), Samastipur (14.90 percent) — cast a doubt on the overall figure of 99.36 percent ODF coverage across rural Bihar, as displayed on the homepage of the SBM website. Of the 18,703 villages (self) declared ODF, only 3,413 have been verified as of 8 January.

Contrary to these figures, Rural Development Secretary Arvind Kumar Chaudhary claims that 19 districts of the state are already ODF and the task was near completion in remaining 19 districts as majority of areas in these districts had been covered (from 89 percent to 99 percent). However, construction of toilets is one thing. Proper use of these is another thing entirely. The menace of open defecation continues despite construction of large number of toilets under previous Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, he noted. “Until people start using toilets, their construction alone would not serve any purpose,” Chaudhary added.

Union Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi in Lok Sabha on 27 December informed members that 21,532 villages and 33 districts in Bihar were yet to be declared ODF.

In a meeting in August 2018, the secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), Parameswaran Iyer, said Bihar and Odisha are a cause of concern as they still show household coverage around 65 percent. He said in terms of socio-economic parameters, the districts lagging in these states figure at the bottom.

Challenges in implementation

Even the latest report by Niti Aayog states that one of the main constraints faced by the SBM is implementation challenges, such as lack of availability of space for construction of household toilets and issues regarding operation and maintenance of toilets, primary among which are scarcity of water and sustaining the change in behaviour patterns.

While the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is the nodal ministry coordinating SBM nationally since its inception on 2 October, 2014, states are free to assign the responsibility of driving rural sanitation to the department they choose. In Bihar, the rural development department is overseeing the drive.

Barely 35 kilometres from Patna, Navdiha village in Naubatpur block has an abysmal record of 23.93 percent ODF coverage. Not a single toilet has been constructed in this village for the past two years. It is ironic that Navdiha, around 14 kilometres northwest of Naubatpur block headquarters, saw initial momentum due to the push by the then sarpanch Devendra Chauhan, but the villagers’ interest in safer sanitation soon fizzled out.

“The construction work is still incomplete,” said Bunda Devi, 45, wife of Hriday Prasad, a Navdiha farmer. “I have not been able to use the toilet in my home even after two years. At night, I have to go outside to attend the nature’s call. It is shameful, not only for me, but also for my two newly-wed daughters in-law.”

Bunda is not alone. Her neighbour Shailendra Kumar, 26, said his family has to go to the fields to defecate. A graduate from Magadh University, Bodh Gaya, Shailendra said he feels embarrassed to see the women of his family being forced to do so. “It’s not only shameful, but also harmful,” he said. Shailendra cited a lack of awareness, lethargic process of payment of grants  (which is often less than the required amount) as the main reasons behind the slow pace of toilet construction.

Navdiha panchayat comprises nine villages: Navdiha, Reganiabagh, Ramcharan Chhatni, Paltu Chhatni, Danaganj, Bisarpur, Rampur, Udaipura and Dhobia Kalapur. Navdiha still has 1,135 households without toilets, as per official figures.

Navdiha sarpanch Aradhna Devi, who was elected in 2015, said the panchayat now has 1,492 households, and claimed “the work to achieve the target would start soon”. Her husband Ashwini Kumar, a former panchayat samiti member, said a team of officials led by Naubatpur block development officer (BDO) Sushil Kumar visited the villages under Navdiha panchayat recently to take stock of the construction work. “We hope the work will gain momentum in days to come,” he added.

Impractical grant

Contrary to the claims of the panchayat head and her husband, the residents of Reganiabagh village said the scheme hasn't lived up to the hype. Lal Mohan Prasad, 52, a daily wage labourer from Reganiabagh, explained the people's disinterest in the sanitation by saying it was not only difficult, but impossible to build a toilet for Rs 12,000 (the government grant paid to the house owner).

A thousand bricks cost between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000. The sand that is needed costs between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,500. At least five bags of cement are required: which cost a minimum of Rs 2,500. Similarly, Rs 3,000 will be spent on labour (one mason and two labourers for three days). In addition, a good amount will be spent on the door, plastic pipes and toilet seat, said Lal Mohan, a college dropout. He pegs the cost of a durable toilet between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000.

Hemraj Prasad, 40, a farmer from Reganiabagh, said, “Corruption is rampant in all government schemes and ODF (SBM) is no exception. Moreover, there are people who don’t have land to construct a house. It will be misnomer to talk of toilets for such landless people.”

Locals said a survey of households that did not have a toilet was conducted at the village in December 2018. The results were sent to the block office and the district headquarters.

Naubatpur BDO Sushil Kumar, when reached for comment, only promised to achieve the target by March-end. “The representatives of the people have been asked to enthuse residents and cooperate with the administration in making the sanitation programme a grand success,” Kumar said.

Despite repeated attempts, Patna district magistrate Kumar Ravi remained unavailable for comment. However, a senior official from the rural development department said only 1.65 lakh toilets were constructed in the state in 2014- 2015 after the scheme was launched on 2 October, 2014. The figure jumped to 4.27 lakh in 2015- 2016 and 8.37 lakh toilets were built in 2016- 2017. The figure went up to 35.73 lakh in 2017- 2018. Till November that year, 37,59,947 toilets were built in Bihar, the officer who did not wish to be named claimed. Bihar has 1.65 crore households.

Santosh Kumar, a Patna-based social activist said the purpose of SBM will not be fulfilled till the government makes a provision for community toilets in villages. He also suggested building community toilets by national highways and major roads for travelers. Even Patna, which is slated to become a Smart City by 2025, lacks public toilets, and as a result commuters can be seen urinating in public places, Santosh lamented.

Atyasha Singh and Ramakant Mishra are Patna-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2019 12:50 PM

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