Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lessons from India's "missing toilets" scam

The controversy surrounding the "missing toilets", claimed to have been constructed as part of the Government of India's Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), should not have come as a surprise. It has all the features of bad policy design and equally bad implementation strategy. However, amidst the all the noise surrounding the corruption scandal, its substantive learnings have been glossed over.

The details first. The TSC was initiated in 1999 with the objective of providing low cost toilets for poor people. Successive governments have revised the targets, with the latest being the objective of completing 125 million toilets across the country by 2017 and thereby make India open defecation free. The Rural Development Ministry claims to have built 87.1 million toilets so far, whereas the census figures indicate that there are only 51.6 million toilets among the target households. Since many of the houses included in the census figures would certainly have had toilets before, the real magnitude of the "missing toilets" may be much higher than the 35.5 million estimated. So far Rs 196 bn has been spent on the program across 607 districts. Predictably, the violations appear to be most egregious in Uttar Pradesh, where the TSC reports indicate only 17.8% households without toilet to the census figure of 78%. 

There are multiple deficiencies with the TSC program. 

1. The most glaring failure with the program is the financing pattern. The initial estimated unit cost of Rs 2500 was low, even for rural areas. Though, the unit cost has been raised in stages from Rs 2200 to Rs 4500, it is extremely low and cannot finance any reasonably functional toilet. Even assuming this is a simple civil construction program, in the absence of the adequate unit cost funding, the best implementation strategy will fail to yield results. 

The low unit cost is a feature of programs and budgetary allocation across sectors. When forced to make the trade off between trying to cover as many beneficiaries as possible with scarce resources and providing adequate unit cost, governments invariably skimp on the latter. In this case, the actual cost of construction is rationalized downwards by promoting low cost materials and encouraging households to contribute labour costs. However, such arm-chair rationalizations, end up creating poor quality toilets, which fall into disrepair very quickly. 

2. The implementation strategy involves mobilizing beneficiaries to take up construction themselves. This is driven both by the ill-considered righteous opposition among opinion shapers and policy makers to the involvement of contractors and the need to dovetail beneficiary contribution into the construction. In most states local officials are given village level construction targets. Each of them have large numbers of widely spread out villages/habitations and given their other responsibilities, it becomes virtually impossible to supervise construction in any meaningful manner. Almost always, supervision is confined to taking figures from the village officials, and disbursing money. At best, the more motivated officials squeeze out some time to make a couple of inspections, mostly to the readily accessible and nearby areas. 

3. The inadequate funding acts as a disincentive to the beneficiaries. Given the actual cost of construction of a quality toilet being 3-5 times the allocation, and the resultant need to mobilize the major share of funding themselves, they find it not worthwhile to take up the construction. In fact, the unit cost may be enough to incentivize only those who had mobilized enough money and were anyways going to construct or repair their toilet or those people in very remote areas, where the construction costs may be lower and the marginal utility of the subsidy large enough. 

4. As indicated, given the widely scattered nature of the implementation, effective supervision is very difficult, especially for badly over-burdened and ineffective bureaucracies. It aligns incentives of all parties - officials, local political representatives, and beneficiaries - to fabricate document and share the spoils. This fraud is commonplace with rural households who already have toilets. 

5. In urban slums, there is the problem of finding space for constructing a toilet. Most houses have no space for toilets, and even when they do have, they find other uses with much higher immediate utility. In any case, the unit cost is too inadequate to provide any incentive. Community toilets should be the preferred strategy in such areas. Here too, the financing problems come to the fore. 

In most cities, the resource strapped local governments prefer to silence local criticism by providing token funds to construct a few community toilets each year. Here too, again in the desire to spread the butter thin and cover more locations, the unit cost is kept low and the quality of construction suffers. Further, there is also the problem of finding enough land space in congested slums to locate the toilet. Amidst all this, the arm-chair opinion makers worry about marginal issues like the failure to encourage private participation to run toilets.    

6. Finally, even if all the aforementioned problems are overcome and the toilet constructed, its usage poses another set of challenges. Most fundamentally, where is the water to run the closets? In villages, where even drinking water is scarce, free flowing water is mostly an exception. Maintenance costs too come in the way of households keeping such toilets functional. More than any of the first five problems, this has no readily available answers.   

The failures in the TSC has a counterpart in the program to construct toilets in schools. The Supreme Court and several High Courts have repeatedly issued deadlines to ensure that there are no schools without toilets. Several districts have even declared to have achieved this objective. However, despite this having featured as an important item in the agenda of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), the flagship national program to improve primary school infrastructure, the progress has been largely cosmetic. 

Three things stand out, all of which revolve around finances. One, despite recent increases, the Rs 35000 currently being sanctioned, is inadequate in many parts of the country. Second, though most schools have toilets, they are invariably inadequate and badly maintained. Even when toilets are sanctioned, they are spread out to cover as many schools as possible, while adequacy considerations take a backseat. Finally, the most frustrating deficiency is the failure to provide for adequate operation and maintenance. The total maintenance allocation for schools under the SSA, including cleanliness, consumables, and small repairs is a pitifully small amount of Rs 5000 each year. 

Raising finances at such fiscally strained times is not easy. However, we need to be aware of these issues before we pass judgements on programs and pour more money down the drain by scaling them up with even more ambitious targets. 

1 comment:

KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

This is a matter of fact assessment of - planning and execution - that seems designed for corruption.

Clearly ignoring anything like reality only makes one thing obvious - there was half hearted intent to make this happen.

Every policy seminar has a fair share of hand wringing over the absence of toilets in schools - and graphs and charts to go with it - and this even has a gender component that makes it relatively more difficult for girls to attend schools.

I am sure a small percentage of officials may have consolidated the monies to build better facilities - but, the bigger question is where did the money go?? Rs 196 b - down the drain ?

or as you point out - the boiler plate issue across our governance machinery - "It aligns incentives of all parties - officials, local political representatives, and beneficiaries - to fabricate document and share the spoils"

As always our governance is the crack through which everything is designed to fall / fail.