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Beyond Pipes and Toilets: Citizens and Local Governments Achieving a Swachh Bharat Together

- Manvita Baradi, Meghna Malhotra, Anurag Anthony, Amita Bhakta

May 2023

Access to clean drinking water is becoming a reality for millions of Indian citizens through the Jal Jeevan Mission, and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation 2.0 (AMRUT 2.0). Newly-built toilets mark community improvements as the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission to sustain India’s open defecation free status gathers pace. Yet, for development in the poorest settlements to be sustained, action is needed beyond building pipes and toilets. Strengthened relations between citizens and local government are key to achieving a truly clean India.

The expanding provision of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is yet to reach the last mile due to gaps in service delivery in slum communities, hampered by poor monitoring of the performance of services that have already been delivered, limited public awareness on how services can be sustained, and the need for effective behaviour change communication strategies for the longer term. Over the past 3 years, the Urban Management Centre (UMC) has made strides in shifting the conversation beyond the construction of toilets and pipes to improve the living conditions of India’s citizens.

Achieving the spirit of the Swachh Bharat Mission requires increased awareness and education of local governments on how the vision of a clean India can become a reality. UMC’s USAID-funded Moving India towards Sanitation for All (MISAAL) programme provides lessons on connecting citizens to local government bodies to improve urban poor settlements in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Odisha. The program has demonstrated a blueprint for co-creation of settlement improvement plans with their residents.

Connecting citizens to local government: the MISAAL project

MISAAL’s journey - to improve wider living conditions for urban poor communities in Ahmedabad, Porbandar, Jodhpur and Sambalpur and to support them to sustain their open defecation free status and achieve ODF+/++ through the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) — began in 2018, and was completed in December 2021. The program sought to address the financial and administrative challenges at a local level and to plug gaps in the funding and guidelines for waste collection and disposal, water supply, and wastewater disposal in the first phase of the SBM. MISAAL was conceived with a vision to create a blueprint to map, measure, and monitor the delivery of sanitation services for urban poor communities. Realising this vision has required significant action to encourage behaviour change among citizens, by connecting and building relationships between citizens and their local governments to trigger transformation in communities.

Collectivising and mobilising communities to take ownership of the renewal process was central to the MISAAL project from the outset. UMC began by engaging with community members to map the state of WASH service provision and levels of open defecation in the settlements, and to deepen their understanding of the social fabric of the communities. Community discussions engaged groups of between 10 and 15 women on the fundamentals of WASH and the roles that they and the local government play in delivering it to improve the settlement. Collectivisation created space to engage citizens on ways forward to improve civic services.

Ward level meeting conducted in settlements to discuss Slum Improvement Plans (SIPs) and Bindi chart.

MISAAL Settlement Committees were formed, and comprised of people of different castes, religions and occupations ranging from Anganwadi workers, caregivers and teachers, most of whom were women, and enabled residents to voice their concerns and take ownership of transforming their communities. Trained by UMC on communication skills, effective engagement with urban local bodies (ULBs), and the importance of using safe sanitation, good hand washing habits, menstrual hygiene, and waste management, committee members became leaders, able to resolve conflicts and make internal decisions to strengthen the representation of their community. Settlement committees became the driving force behind awareness campaigns on these issues and other matters such as appropriate COVID-19 behaviours and vaccinations, roping in their children and youth to maximise impact. Letterheaded communications signalled to stakeholders that the committees they were working with were formal institutions, who kept records of their activities, minutes, and attendance registers of their monthly meetings, where slum-level concerns were raised and discussed. By December 2020, 208 Settlement Committees were to be found across MISAAL cities, from Nagoriwad in Ahmedabad to Bhehramunda in Sambalpur, Odisha. Supported by a mentoring programme, these committees have mobilised 2,700 community leaders to date, 90% of whom are women.

Citizen-led action is improving slum settlements beyond pipes and toilets

Before MISAAL began, poor infrastructure in slum settlements in cities such as Jodhpur and Sambalpur, led to conflict between upstream and downstream residents, as garbage piled high and choked drains with waste and flooding the streets of those living further downstream. UMC’s work to facilitate citizen-led action through the MISAAL programme created a dialogue across communities to resolve water logging and surface run-off, identified through participatory techniques.

Social maps drawn onto community pavements with Rangoli colours or using pen and paper highlighted housing and infrastructural provisions such as roads, water supply provisions, schools and primary healthcare centres. Drawing timelines of the historical development of the community, marking events such as disease outbreaks and sewer construction, created awareness of timescales in community transformation. Using this data, action plans for community transformation could be fostered, supported by a list of key stakeholders to engage. Communities began monitoring the quality of water supply, cleaning of community toilets and waste management they were receiving, to support ULBs to strengthen their service delivery.

Citizen-led actions: Slum mapping and settlement improvement planning (L) WASH IEC activities through wall painting by community (R).

‘Bindi charts’ enabled residents to convey their levels of satisfaction with services, with red dots, or bindis, marking poor satisfaction, orange for moderate, and green for good. The charts became a daily talking point on settlement improvement strategies, and raised awareness among the residents who were not involved in the activities about the transformative action which was happening in their streets. MISAAL’s work to convert settlement committees into self-help groups has ultimately led them to improve their own community infrastructure and opening up possibilities of livelihoods as municipal service providers (such as community toilet operators). The responsibility of running and maintaining waste processing units, community toilets and community centres now lay firmly with local residents. The settlements were markedly improved as residents began to voluntarily remove their encroachments over public spaces and utilities such as sewers and manholes, having understood the impact it had on the overall settlement. Through this collective action, and the resources unlocked from the local government, hotspots of garbage dumping, urination, open defecation and waterlogging were soon to be consigned to the past.

Construction of new community toilets to improve access to sanitation and eliminate open defecation.

During COVID-19 in gullies across the programme’s target states, settlement transformation went beyond building pipes and toilets, touching individual lives. An auto rickshaw driver on one of the committees mobilised lockdown rations for the slum, and a community kitchen where residents collectively cooked and delivered meals to deprived and infected families emerged. MISAAL committee members soon became elected local councillors, gaining a platform to voice civic concerns. Livelihood opportunities have emerged, as committees have turned into savings groups, supported by improved literacy and entrepreneurship skills provided through MISAAL. MISSAL settlement committees have been exemplar, setting the tone and guidance for implementing the Jan Bhagidari initiative of the SBM to promote civic participation.

Only Local Governments can reach the last mile

MISAAL exemplifies how becoming an open defecation free nation by reaching the last mile in India’s slums can be achieved with local government support, through mapping, measuring and monitoring sanitation service delivery. The online ‘Sanitation Mapping Tool’, which provides a geotagged detailed assessment of public and community toilets, enables ULBs to identify gaps in, and prepare and cost refurbishment plans for improving infrastructure. Assigning unique identity numbers to public and community toilet facilities, facilitates regular monitoring of cleanliness.

Partnerships with local government and communities enabled UMC to collect, analyse and present data from surveys of an estimated 30,000 households in 223 slum settlements across Ahmedabad, Porbandar, Jodhpur and Sambalpur. Rich spatial data on demographics, user behaviour, and delivery of and citizens feedback on the quality of WASH services has enabled local governments to undertake spatial analysis, conduct data driven planning, facilitate interdepartmental coordination and participatory community engagement.

Behind the transformation lay key elements to break through the resistance of both citizens and ULBs to engage with each other regularly and productively. Firstly, training slum resident committees to capture gaps in infrastructure provision, by maintaining and recording frequency and quality of services including water and waste management, enabled them to share detailed information with ULBs and demonstrate their capacity and dedication to implementing change. Access to information which was previously lacking and a barrier to development provided a route for the ULBs to identify solutions to problems faced by communities. Secondly, quantifying service levels enabled communities to hold ULB staff to account for their actions, through greater transparency provided by detailed records. Finally, at the heart of the process, as friends and partners to local government coupled with a clear motivation to see MISAAL succeed, lay UMC, who were uniquely positioned as a primer to the process. UMC staff facilitated initial meetings between communities and senior ULB officials. After an exchange of information and a recognition of the cooperation being extended, monitoring service quantity and incorporating UMC’s support became easier. ULBs were motivated to lead in organising community meetings to come together and take action towards transforming settlements. At a community level, a MISAAL committee which became a self-help group went from being blamed for messing up pumps and viewed as ‘non-technical’ to being awarded for the ‘Best Maintained Toilet’ in the city by the Sambalpur Municipal Corporation, reflecting the potential success of creating collective ownership and accountability to sustain the operation and maintenance of community infrastructure.

Moving forward

Whilst the national policy drive to achieve a ‘Swachh Bharat’ continues to be largely defined through infrastructure provision, this will not be enough to reach the ‘last mile’. India’s communities can only truly be transformed if residents of all backgrounds are placed at the centre of the process, brought together to help each other, equipped with the tools to map out the improvements needed in their living conditions, empowered to voice their concerns to local authorities, and given the capacity to own the process of transformation and to lead in taking action. Creating new livelihood opportunities, improving literacy and entrepreneurship skills, and increasing democratic participation paves a route forward for settlements to escape the challenges of poverty with local government support. Building water and sanitation infrastructure is just the start; citizen-local government connections are key to improving the lives of India’s poorest citizens.


About the Authors

Manvita Baradi

Manvita Baradi is the Founder & Director of the Urban Management Centre. For almost 3 decades, she has been one of India’s leading voices advocating for the development of better cities.

Meghna Malhotra

Meghna Malhotra is the Deputy Director of Urban Management Centre. She is an expert on the design and operation of human centric infrastructure. She is currently leading UMC’s partnership with Government of Odisha to implement the Garima Scheme program and ensure safety and dignity of sanitation workers.

Mr. Anurag Anthony

Mr. Anurag Anthony is the Chief Technical Officer at Urban Management Centre. He is an expert in local government management across sectors including heritage management, urban design, water-sanitation and community engagement.

Dr. Amita Bhakta

Dr. Amita Bhakta is an interdisciplinary freelance consultant and researcher. She has a BA (Hons) Human Geography and an MRes Geography at the University of Leicester, UK. She then joined the WASH sector where she became the first Indian woman with Cerebral Palsy to complete a PhD (2013-2019) at the Water Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) in the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering at Loughborough University, UK.

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