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From Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan to Swachh Bharat — the scheme has changed names with a change of government but the aim remains the same. That is, to ensure access to sanitation for all rural households in India. The United Progressive Alliance government had waded into the challenge of ending open-air defecation in 1999, aiming to complete the project of full sanitation by 2017. But the census shows that only a little over 32 per cent of rural households have access to sanitation; the scheme of providing Rs 10,000 to each household to build a toilet has not worked as well as it could have. One reason offered for this is that the toilets so built are of poor quality and people prefer to use them as store-rooms. Besides, toilets are best with running water. The Union drinking water and sanitation secretary has therefore asked the states to ensure piped water for every rural household. His instruction comes in the context of the Centre’s decision to make India free of open defecation by 2019. The Swachh Bharat scheme requires that all households and communities be enabled to build latrines and loans be made available to households not covered by below-poverty-line or any other scheme which could subsidize the building of toilets.

The National Democratic Alliance government has a soft spot for technological means and solutions that shows how much in step with the times it is. The under-secretary in the drinking water and sanitation ministry has asked states to consider bio-digester technology for disposing waste. The problem is that a toilet with this technology — containing bacteria that changes waste into odourless compost — would cost between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh. This may rattle the states. Perhaps this technology is not the answer at the moment, but the aim of the NDA government is laudable. Five years will be too short a time for full achievement, many experts seem to think, but a determined thrust in this direction can only be greatly to India’s good. What is really needed, far more than high-end technology, is persuasion. Too many residents of villages still feel that there is something ‘unclean’ about having a toilet in the house. ‘Purity’ is maintained by ‘going’ outside, in the fields. Arousing awareness without hurting sensibilities is as important as ensuring running water and good-quality bathrooms. Once the first hurdle is overcome, the rest will become easy.