Towards social equity through low cost sanitation. The Sulabh-Government Parnership


Even after much rhetoric, legislation and several programmes, social equity in India remains a long distance from its desired goals. It has been estimated that approximately 60 percent of the total urban population is not covered under any sanitation schemes and that a quarter of those who do have access to toilets use dry privies, involving the physical removal of human excreta by a class of people referred to as scavengers. The scavengers remain at the lowest rung of the socio – economic hierarchy, shunned and ostracised by the rest of society on account of their subhuman occupation.

It was to address this inequity that Sulabh International (previously called Sulabh Shauchalaya Sansthan) was founded by a sociologist Dr, bindeshwar Pathar, with the objectives of changing the existing social order through stimulating a shift in the sanitation habits of the urban poor; making available low – cost and appropriate toilets; and upgrading the social status of scavengers by developing their capacity for alternate occupations.

Set up in 1970, upon developing the Sulabh Shauchalaya (translated easy toilet), the organisation set about converting dry privies into pour – flush latrines. Over time the latrines came to be widely accepted not merely because of the low cost of construction but the ease of construction, low water requirements, absence of air pollution and the production of manure and biogas.

The success in acceptance led to its expansion from the construction of household toilets to the introduction of public toilet complexes. While public toilets already existed before Sulabh introduced their system, Sulabh deviated from the traditional service approach by providing maintenance of the facility through a charge levied for its use. The “pay and use” system, although not without its problems, specially in permanent settlements, nevertheless proved to be more effective than the traditional system due to a greater involvement of the implementing agency in maintenance, resulting in cleaner and more usable facilities.

In parallel to the provision of sanitation. Sulabh undertook the liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers, to respond to the issues of social equity in a coordinated manner. The strategy addressing scavengers aimed at one level at reducing the demand for scavenging by converting dry privies into pour flush latrines, and at another level at reducing the supply of scavengers into society by training the scavengers’ wards and rehabilitating them into alternate occupations.

From the outset, and through the entire evolution of the organisation and its work, Sulabh has worked in collaboration with the government. This focus has not only constituted the “backbone” of the Sulabh movement but contributed substantially to their own success and the success of the sanitation movement per se in the country. For through this collaboration Sulabh has been able to bring about an acceptance of their work, bring it to a meaningful scale of operations, influence policy and make sanitation a part of the national mandate. No less significant has been the impact on local authorities, who were previously unable to provide this service, adequately and efficiently. The collaboration however, has been based and strengthened in large part on personal links and equations; a strategy that raises questions on the sustainability and replicability of such an approach.

Apart from the close cooperation with government agencies at various levels, another key aspect of Sulabh’s operational style has comprised working with self generated funds; an approach that has made them more akin to a business enterprise than a traditional non – governmental organisation. Deviating away from the traditional norms of agencies working in social action, Sulabh has responded to the “market”, and not been shy of competing in the same. This approach has obviated the need for dependence on external grants and made Sulabh a self financed organisation. The financial independence brought with it freedom regarding choice of work and utilisation of funds.

Sulabh’s pioneering role, combined with the dual strategy of collaborating with the government and ensuring self generated financial strength resulted in a growth that came to be viewed as a threatening power, with the ability to influence and dictate terms to the government, and faced considerable criticism on issues of exploitation and harassment. Not only did this related to the user community but to other organisations as well, as Sulabh was perceived to be using questionable means to retain their monopolistic status. Not only did this lead to resentment from many directions but caused cracks in the Sulabh – government relationship at various levels.

Much of this was a consequence of the entrepreneurial facet to Sulabh’s work, which brought with it financial strength with its accompanying potential power; and the absence of transparency in its operations and cooperation with the government. The dangers of a shifting focus from “people” to “generation of funds” began to be realised as a corollary to Sulabh’s approach.

Another corollary of their entrepreneurial approach has been the absence of the “customer”, the user community, in the managerial and operational aspects of the service delivery; the inclusion of which would perhaps address many of the existing criticisms and shortcoming of the Sulabh approach. The absence of community participation moreover, raises critical questions on the relevance and justifications of such a government – NGO collaboration in social action.

Conclusions and recommendations

Despite much rhetoric from the government, the provision of essential services and infrastructure has remained far short of requirement. Sanitation specifically, has received a low mandate; the limited action combined with ineffective implementation and uncoordinated programmes, ensured that the gap between demand and supply of sanitation facilities remained wide. While the physical availability of sanitary facilities was inadequate, nevertheless much of the concern that arose in the context of this gap related to ineffective service delivery. The government agencies implementing sanitation programmes perhaps had neither the infrastructure nor the ability for the much needed software aspects of the programmes introduced by them.

Sulabh’s intervention in the sanitation sector thus constituted a much needed response to this constraint; as non government agencies are typically able to fulfil software aspects at local levels more effectively than government agencies. Over the years, Sulabh’s work filled an important gap in bringing visibility to sanitation issues and providing practical solutions at local levels.

Several decisive factors contributed to bringing Sulabh’s work to the stage that it is at today. One related to the technology itself, which proved to be economical, easy to construct and ecologically sustainable. The other related to its approach, which constituted key aspects such as working in close collaboration with the government and with self generated funds.

Sulabh’s experiences have reinforced the need for and advantages of a government – NGO collaboration in service delivery; where not only have critical implementation aspects (such as maitenance) been addressed by an agency able to work more effectively at local levels than the government, but many other issues as well. Sulabh has demonstrated that a scale of operations such as achieved by them, and essential for moving away from being merely demonstrative to bringing about a meaningful dent in the level of infrastructure/service available, can come about only through such a collaboration. Moreover, if the basic principles of the approach are simple, then such a collaboration can facilitate their adaptation in government programmes, further enabling widespread coverage.

At the same time, much of the criticism faced by Sulabh on misuse of their relationship with the government to their advantage, at the cost of other organisations, points to the critical need for a well defined framework for collaboration and transparency in system. The absence of these would not only create conflicts with and resentmen from others, as has been found, but the process would not lend itself to replicability.

Sulabh’s a approach of raising local resources for the services provided, while conceptually desirable, nevertheless brings to light many concerns. Thus on the one hand, local resource generation eliminates external dependence for funds, which once again is a facilitating factor for enhancing coverage and for long terms sustainability of the service. The quality of service provided also stands to gain as it has no bearing on the external availability of funds; and the responsibility to the user, since they are the source of the funds, is greater. From the organisational point of view, self generated finances imply many inherent benefits, such as freedom on choice of activities undertaken and on internal prioritisation of fund utilisation. In the case of Sulabh for instance, this has translated into high investments in human resources and organisational image building. Neither of which would have found acceptance in a traditional grant based situation.

On the reverse side however, resource generation alone is not sufficient for quality or sustainability of service. The generation of financial resources through charging for a service, leaves a thin dividing line between a not for profit approach, the trademark of organisations working in the social sector, and a profit making business approach. Clearly, while profits, or surpluses, may arise in both, it is the allocation of these surpluses that would differentiate the former from the latter. In a service entirely based and therefore dependent on local resources, resource generation has the potential to become the focal point of the programme. Thus in such a case, surpluses are likely to be diverted towards activities maximising this “income” and not necessary towards the overall development of the community, making the possibility of a shift in focus from people to one on monetary aspects very real. In such a situation, where resource generation becomes more important that the catalytic role that organisations in social action are meant to provide, the interests of the service provider may be best served by perpetuating service delivery at the cost of sustainability.

Sulabh’s experiences have reinforced the above through the limited investments in activities directly related to their original goal, viz upgrading the status of scavengers; and through some of the implementation problem of their toilet complexes which pointed to their lack of a conscious focus on the user community.

The financial strength deriving out of an entrepreneurial approach combined with government links also has the potential to make an NGO into a powerful force, whose power can be misused or perceived to be misused. Either situation is likely to create friction with the other participants in the process. Such a situation is neither conducive for the desirability of the experience nor its replicability. These concerns can be counteracted through a much wider and deeper role of the local community in the service delivery process.

Both, Sulabh’s experiences and development theory have reiterated the need for the involvement of the user community, not merely as beneficiaries or consumers but as managers of the service being provided to them, to ensure that the user remains the focus of all activities. For only then would the service, no matter how basic a need it may address, remain sustainable. Here again, this becomes all the more relevant in a business approach, where the user is merely a consumer, and where in fact it would go against the interests of the service provider to make the user anything more. For as a decision making manager of the facility, the user may “demand” far greater accountability from the service organisation; which may not in turn allow the organisation the flexibility and freedom on utilisation of funds. Thus a business approach, where surpluses are sought for activities other than those directly relating to the user community, and empowerment of the user community are almost necessarily in conflict.

It is only in a situation of competition, that is in a “free market” environment with several organisations providing the same service, that such empowerment may become desirable even in a business approach. For then every “provider” would seek an edge over the others; investing in the community through their empowerment could be one such edge. On the other hand, in a non competitive environment, as in the case of Sulabh’s monopolistic status, empowering the user, that is the community, would clearly be undesirable as it would be in interests of the community to break this monopoly in order to optimise benefits to themselves.

Sulabh’s inability to involve the community also raises critical questions on the efficacy of such a government – NGO collaboration. An NGOs sensitivity to respond to local needs has constituted a key rationale for the need for such a collaboration. While other benefits from such a cooperation, such as scale of operations and influencing national policy, nevertheless stand, the absence of a community sensitive approach raises questions on the need for NGO involvement as opposed to any other type of private enterprise.

Clearly, Sulabh’s orientation has been towards service delivery rather than the community base, which in turn has weakened its grassroots strength, in the process of scaling up its service. Sulabh’s organisation is characteristic of a business enterprise, where the community is perceived more as a consumer. Thus in order to increase their grass root strength, and at the same time enhance the sustainability of the service, their consumer base needs to be viewer differently. One mechanism could be for the community to have a representation in its organisation, like other NGOs in India such as SEWA for instance, who derive their strength from community representation on their organisations and at the same time influence national policy. The other mechanism would be to pass on management of the service to the user community through community based organisations in each area. Such a community based approach would shift focus from the individual toilet user to the community and make for a far more sustainable service in the long term. This again relates to the earlier made point on the need for raising local resources for a service, but without the business approach, that is with some proportion of the surpluses invested back into the community.

Both these approaches would increase accountability to the user, a key requirement for basic service delivery to low income communities. For it is only through such accountability that the community would constitute the focus of activities. Importantly therefore, it is precisely this accountability that would justify a business approach in social action and would in fact differentiate “business entrepreneurship” from “social entrepreneurship”.

It is also in this context that the role of the government raises important questions. Since provision of basic facilities, specially to marginalized communities, has been the responsibility of the government, can it transfer this responsibility completely to another agency through such a collaboration? Does the government then, play no other role apart from the provision of grants and services? Clearly, since the service is being through government programmes, the government’s responsibility in ensuring adequate delivery of the service remains; With the co-operation of an external agency merely strengthening the government’s own shortcomings. Clearly, checks and accountability need to be built into the framework of collaboration, and the government needs to play a much wider role in ensuring that many of the concerns articulated here are not realised.

Simultaneously, to reiterate what has already been mentioned, the failure of the civic authorities in local level implementation, points to the need to empower community based organisations, through a much wider role in the management of the service, from planning to implementation and maintenance. The seventy Fourth Constitution Amendment Act (1992), which pertains to decentralised planning in local bodies, further reinforces the need for capacity building, through the involvement of non government and community based organisations.

To conclude, it is clear that collaborations between government and other agencies are not only desirable but also necessary for effective service delivery to marginalized communities. However, the framework within which such s collaboration would the meaningful and effective necessarily has to include transparent and well defined principles of interaction between the collaborators, to create conditions for multiple organisations working towards the same goal; ensure a wide role of community based organisations in service delivery for optimal accountability, benefits and sustainability; and evolve self sustaining approaches of service delivery, such as local resource generation, but without losing sight of the objective of the service delivery.