Media requested to exercise caution in publishing poor quality and biased studies
An opinion piece titled “Modi Govt’s Swachh Bharat achieved one thing. And it’s not open defecation free India: Survey” by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears (Executive Directors, r.i.c.e.)was published yesterday by The Print. Similar stories have been attempted multiple times by the authors, making misleading and outrageous statements with reference to the Swachh Bharat Mission based on incomplete, flawed, incorrect and – more often than not – non-existent data.
It may be noted that over the past 70 years, since Indian Independence, sanitation levels have been more or less stagnant across rural India,adversely impacting the life conditions of our people. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to take on the challenge of open defecation head on and gave the programme the highest level of political leadership, the Swachh Bharat Mission became a people’s movement and the rural sanitation situation across the country was successfullyturned around in a period of five years. Unfortunately, theseperennial critics have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge these gains and,true to their habit of perpetuating theoretical critique, have always looked at the glass not just half, but fully empty. They have been trying to raise false doubts instead of providing solutions, and accepting, as the world has done, the overall success of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation would like to place on record its response to the claims made in the piece about the progress made under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) and its position with respect to the lack of academic integrity shown by the authors in their attempt to mislead readers with biased and baseless statements.
On independent surveys
The r.i.c.e. piece outrightly dismisses the results of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) based on the “thousands” of households the team surveyed to track changes between 2014 and 2018. The facts are that their statistically insignificant and non-representative study surveyed a sample of merely 1558 households in 120 villages. Further, the study was rife with gaps in methodology and bias of the surveyors, which is evident in the questionnaire design itself. These gaps have been highlighted by this Department in detail through a media statement published on the PIB website, dated 9 January 2019. (link: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetail.aspx?PRID=1559229)
The r.i.c.e. piece deliberately ignores the nationwide 90,240 household survey, the National Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, conducted across over 6,000 villages, since that would not serve their explicitly biased conclusions. It is relevant to mention here, given the questions raised about the credibility of progress figures, that the methodology and processes of NARSS have been developed and approved by an empowered and independent Expert Working Group (EWG) comprising leading experts on statistics and sanitation which include Prof. Amitabh Kundu, Dr N. C Saxena, World Bank, UNICEF, BMGF, Water Aid India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), among others.
The NARSS 2018-19 is the largest and most representative independent sanitation survey in the country to date. The survey found toilet usage in rural India to be 96.5%. Two more independent surveys conducted in the past by the Quality Council of India in 2017, and National Sample Survey Organization in 2016, also found the usage of rural toilets to be 91% and 95% respectively.
On the “subsidy” INR 12,000 not being enough
This shows the deliberate misunderstanding of the programme by the authors. The INR 12,000 given to the eligible households is not a “subsidy”, but an incentive. Households are encouraged to invest, as is comfortable and convenient for them, for building the toilets of their choice. Having said that, the incentive amount is enough for building a twin pit toilet, the most suitable toilet technology for large parts of rural India. Suffice it to say that they make no reference of the fact that the toilet incentive given by the previous government was significantly less than that given under the SBM.
On targets and the construction of toilets leading to negative consequences
The piece itself admits that ‘no evidence can settle whether a complex, multi-faced national programme was a cause of such a crime. Moreover, of course, many who worked for a Swachh Bharat (clean India) are dismayed by this killing’, but the authors, undeterred by this lack of evidence, carry on to make irresponsible statements on the subject nonetheless.
Further, in their weak attempt to denounce the SBM, the authors conveniently overlookthe positive impact the SBM has demonstrated in the lives of people in terms of health, economics and the environment, as articulated by global agencies. Some of these are as follows:
- In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that SBM(G) will result in averting more than 3,00,000 deaths (diarrhoea and protein-energy malnutrition) between 2014 and October 2019.
- UNICEF’s assessment of the economic impact of the SBM estimated that in an ODF village in India, each family saves up to Rs.50,000 per year on account of avoided medical costs, time savings which can be used more productively, and lives saved.
- UNICEF’s assessment of SBM on Faecal Contamination of Water, Soil, and Food found that ODF villages are 11.25 times less likely to have their groundwater sources contaminated, and 12.7 times less from contaminants traceable to humans alone.
Onfield officials being directed to “humiliate and harass”
The SBM(G) recognises the influential role of the community itself to enhance positive behaviour change communication. However, the accusation that swachhagrahis (village volunteers) and nigrani samitis (community groups for monitoring) are actively encouraged ‘to humiliate and harass the poor and marginalised’ only confirms the baseless and evidence-less agenda of the authors.
The Swachh Bharat Mission strongly supports positive behaviour change and the Department takes note of any coercion in implementation very seriously (advisory:https://pib.gov.in/PressReleseDetail.aspx?PRID=1559229)The article fails to distinguish between coercion and affirmative community action, such as that led by local Nigrani Samitis, or local GP, which reflects the limited understanding of the community approach to sanitation among the authors.
As opposed to the negative tone of the r.i.c.e. piece, the Community Approach to Sanitation, employed by the SBM(G), actually brings all sections of the community together in their effort to eliminate open defecation and practice safe sanitation.
Further, all guidelines and directions of the SBM(G) promote positive behaviour change communication.In 2019, Dr.Cass Sunstein, a Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard who specialises in the ‘nudge theory’, cited the Swachh Bharat Mission as an example for how positive behaviour change can catalyse structural reform(article:https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/nudge-can-help-tackle-india-s-social-problems/story-S1HbFzeiA6T8XVh9l5VLqO.html) . A recent article by Prof Bibek Debroy, as well, confirms the impactful yet sustainable policy outcomes by applying behavioural tools in mission like ‘Swachh Bharat’(article: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/swachh-bharat-shows-how-to-nudge-the-right-way/1733445/).
Given the glaring gaps in the aforementioned piece, the Department would like to stress that reports based on such erroneous, inconsistent and biased studies are an attempt to mislead readers.
The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation urges all media houses to practice caution when citing these authors. It is clear that the authors and the study hold a prejudiced and biased perspective on what is widely acknowledged to be a successful Mission and the largest behaviour change programme in the world – reaffirmed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which honoured the Prime Minister with the Global Goalkeeper Award this year for the Swachh Bharat Mission.