Even as Mumbai enlists the star power of Salman Khan to end open defecation and Delhi has its turbaned Swachh Sewak mascots patrolling the streets, whistling at and fining the guilty, the underlying lacunae that make people defecate in the open see little discussion and go almost completely unaddressed. A problem that should not take more than a year to be solved nationally, if addressed in mission mode, drags on through one scheme after the other.

The populist efforts are driven more by the aim of safeguarding the sensibilities of the privileged than out of a feeling of empathy for those who must go through the indignity of open defecation. A sincere desire to solve the problem is wanting. The Swachh Bharat Mission makes the right noises but lacks in empowering municipal officials adequately. Nice videos and musical jingles can only take you so far. The real difference comes from silent work carried out by a taskforce staffed with deeply committed and talented people.

In the urban context, especially, the issue becomes more complex. Land is scarce and has higher economic value, and urban planning and equitable housing policies have been neglected for a very long time. Open defecation arises from a neglect of these fundamental issues rather than just from the absence of adequate toilets. While we decide what we want to do with planning and governing our cities better, in the interim, it should not be difficult to construct a high number of high quality toilets, which become a natural attraction for those defecating in the open.

Simple as it may seem, the working of the government departments becomes the biggest obstacle. Toilets designed under government schemes are found to be wanting in design and quality of construction. Funds of elected officials are frequently used to make toilets in slum colonies. Subsequent surveys of these facilities reveal the sheer lack of empathy in their design and workmanship, leading to frequent breakdowns of either the sewerage system, the floors and doors, or the lighting. As a result, even people who may start using them eventually go back to open defecation.

Thousands of such badly designed toilets dot the country, all made from tax payers’ money. If the money is to be spent, why can’t we ensure a top-notch outcome? Should the say in how toilets are made be left to the guidelines of the collector’s office or the housing department alone? Should the lowest tender clause apply? Why should politicians not spare this stream of funds for making a quick buck? Can teams of experts, civil engineers and social activists not be formed to supervise the use of the funds, choice of design and technology?

A toilet complex takes three months to build. If quality structures are made in all the top 100 cities in the country and and if we do this in mission mode, open defecation can be eradicated in most of India in exactly six months.

Land, infrastructure, funds and talent are not what is stopping us from making India open defecation-free. It is about who we are as a society and whether we are willing to stand up for people out there incapable of fending for themselves. The effort and intelligence required for providing dignified sanitation to every citizen is very much within our scope. If we can, as a society, solve complex mathematics to launch a mission to Mars or develop algorithms for e-commerce, the intelligence and effort required to ensure an open defecation-free India are far less demanding.

The obstacles

At the heart of the issue is the legendary matrix of caste, land politics and the political economy that controls decision-making in India. That is what determines how much resource or focus is made available for which issue. This matrix ensures that even with the availability of abundant land and funds, schemes and plans fail.

The urban poor who defecate in the open, whether in Mumbai, Delhi, Guwahati or Chennai, are physiologically and psychologically left feeling overwhelmed about adjusting to this animal called a city. Often, they are economic or social refugees. They are unable to understand power structures, may be facing intimidation from slum lords and others, and are willing to bear the indignity of open defecation rather than face the dangers in making democracy and governance work towards their basic human rights.

They do effortlessly and naturally what generations before them have been comfortable with for millennia. And that itself would have not been a problem. The problem becomes pronounced in urban areas because of the sheer density of people living in close quarters, and the nature of the built environment that is largely lacking in soil, which would otherwise decompose the faecal matter.

Therefore, it becomes the duty of the state to create a transformation. A single Indian Administrative Service officer trained at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is a million times more endowed with intelligence, resources and capacity to mobilise than a million people living in jhuggi jhopdis who have to defecate in the open.

All the factors involved in providing sanitation and eliminating open defecation are well known. Over the years, grassroots innovators, PhD students and United Nations Children’s Fund experts have studied and found answers to every aspect of the problem. It is worth pondering why then we have still not been able to eliminate the problem all together.