An employee applies Hindware branded tape to toilet bowls. (Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg)

Swachh Bharat: A Tale Of Disappearing Toilets, Vanishing Data  

Oct. 2, 2018, marks the completion of the fourth and penultimate lap in a five-year sprint towards a promised clean India--a Swachh Bharat.

With a year to go, different voices, including from the finance ministry and the Economic Advisory Council, have echoed the Prime Minister’s in declaring the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) an unparalleled success. This is regardless of the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India--the government’s own auditor--has raised serious questions on the veracity of SBM claims in at least two states. Many others, such as Accountability Initiative, which works to enhance accountability in governance, have been cautiously sceptical, too.

How can the truth behind such claims be judged? Accountable and responsive governance can only be ensured by reliable and comprehensive data.

Two Strands

Although generally used as an umbrella term for government sanitation efforts, SBM actually comprises two divergent arms for rural and urban India, each with its own Management Information System (MIS). After their launch in October 2014, SBM-Gramin (SBM-G), or rural, quickly established itself as the role model while SBM-Urban (SBM-U) faced lower allocations, a smaller mandate, an uncertain departmental home, all of which contributed to its slow start.

This difference was reflected in their respective mechanisms for transparency. SBM-G created a comprehensive, dynamic dashboard, outfitted with a hyperactive ticker that counted toilets with such vigour that each reference to it needed a timestamp.

Other elements too were presented by SBM-G in great detail and from different analytical viewpoints. Not only was overall expenditure reported, it was broken by month, by component, and segregated by source of funds.

In contrast, SBM-U had little in terms of either design sophistication or administrative detail.

Over the last two years, both portals have undergone significant changes. Some changes were cosmetic, such as changing layout to highlight human-interest elements. Others seemed to be of importance although only in the esoteric world of policy-making. These included a steady accumulation of guidelines dealing with increasingly finer elements of the programme in SBM-G.

Disappearing Toilets

SBM-U originally targeted the construction of 10.4 million individual household latrines (IHHL). States undertook a reassessment of toilet needs, and in February 2017, the overall IHHL target was reduced across 23 states and union territories (UTs) by 36 percent to 6.64 million. Andhra Pradesh, for instance, saw its target reduce by 52 percent. By this point, however, a few states had already claimed construction numbers based on initial targets.

As a result, between November 2016 and November 2017, 208,781 urban household toilets across seven states and UTs vanished from the MIS, Accountability Initiative found. While Andhra Pradesh accounted for more than half of these disappearances (131,530), sizeable differences were noted in other states, too. For instance, Uttar Pradesh lost close to 37,000 toilets, and Chandigarh had almost 13,000 fewer toilets in a year.

No explanation for this sudden revision was given. This issue becomes significant not only because of its pertinence to data quality and transparency but even more so given that at least Rs 6,000 is given as monetary incentive for toilet construction under the Urban Swachh Bharat Mission.

It was not just the number of household toilets that went down, which could plausibly, even if not convincingly, be attributed to miscounting. The number of community and public toilets (CTs and PTs) too reduced by 36,754 across five states during this same period, primarily in Tamil Nadu (32,780).

In the month between October and November 2017, the number of CT/PTs completed reduced by 13,640 across 10 states. Elsewhere, the mission seemed to be unsure of its own scope. Thus, while one page in the MIS reported that till December 2017, all 51,734 wards had achieved 100 percent door-to-door waste collection, another page in the same MIS reported that this proportion was 67 percent (55,913 out of 82,607).

Meanwhile, less than 37 percent of India’s waste is processed. Yet, only 29 percent of solid waste management (SWM) funds of Rs 7,366 crore had been released to states by January 2018. Major waste generators such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra had been released less than 5 percent of their SWM mission allocations by January 2018. As of September 2018, the SBM-U website reported no data on funds released for the current financial year.

Disappearing Data

SBM-U never carried the same degree of detail as its rural counterpart. Its attempts at adding these details added confusion instead.

SBM-G had always made it a point to be transparent. The seemingly unimportant details it provided allowed for implementation to be unpacked and gaps to be identified. Over the last year, however, SBM-G has taken several steps in the opposite direction.

In January 2018, Accountability Initiative observed that while the indicators in the dashboard were intact, data for years prior to 2016-17 had been taken off. Between then and September 2018, most of these indicators have been removed from the public domain. Today, the much-celebrated dashboard tells a much shorter story, revealing more in what it omits.

While it is speculative to surmise the causes behind this retrenchment, it may be worthwhile to analyse which data have been removed and which retained.

What has been removed includes all data related to releases and expenditure of funds, conversion of insanitary toilets which foster manual scavenging, and several details of toilet construction. At present, the dashboard contains only four indicators, namely the toilet construction target achieved, the number of toilet photos uploaded (although not the actual photographs), the number of villages declared and verified open defecation-free, and the number of swachhagrahis (mission workers) engaged.

The story now narrated is familiar. That 94 percent of India has toilets, 470,000 of 600,000 villages have been declared ODF, and this has been done with the assistance of 496,000 swachhagrahis.

The data which were removed make the story more interesting. For instance, Accountability Initiative found that Rs 157 crore was spent on behaviour change efforts in 2014-15, which decreased to Rs 147 crore in 2015-16, and further to Rs 124 crore in 2016-17. During this same time, the pace of the mission’s achievements increased, with 40,030, 135,652 and 167,090 ODF declarations in successive years.

Effectively, this means SBM-G convinced and converted millions of families at a cost of Rs 33,382 per village in 2014-15, down to Rs 10,837 in 2015-16, and Rs 7,421 in 2016-17.

Independent evaluations such as by the CAG are essential to accountable governance, but they only play a supplementary role. The mainstay remains administrative data compiled on an ongoing basis. In order to illuminate, these data must address the entire implementation framework and include information on inputs and processes that led to the resulting outputs and outcomes. In the absence of regular and credible data on these processes, it is difficult to believe that either of these missions has succeeded, irrespective of what is being claimed.

(Deshpande is a Senior Research Associate at the Accountability Initiative - Centre for Policy Research.)

This copy has been published in arrangement with IndiaSpend.

Also read: Every Indian To Have Toilet In Next 365 Days: Official Data. Under The Surface, A Crisis