Partial Usage: Cause or Consequence?

By Alok Gangaramany, Final Mile

Many organizations have tried to deal with the problem of open defecation in India. Some programs built free toilets, only to realize later that this resulted in a lack of ownership among beneficiaries. As a result, toilets were never used for the reason that they were built in the first place. The model then moved from a supply-driven one, to a demand-driven subsidy model. New initiatives enabled toilet construction by providing villagers with the technical know-how and some economic incentives that partially offset the costs of building household toilets. However, a problem still persisted: people had no reason to buy these toilets because they did not see the need for one in their homes. So the expected demand for toilet construction did not build up as expected.

New Information, Education and Communication (IEC) initiatives under Government of India’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan programme (the erstwhile Total Sanitation Campaign) focused on highlighting why people should build toilets at home to begin with. Building toilets for women seemed to be a strong motivator. At Gulbarga where we conducted our observational research, we were told that this approach of highlighting the need for building toilets seems to have significantly increased demand for toilets. When people started building these toilets, a social norm around construction was created. Applications for new toilets increased significantly and overall toilet coverage improved significantly. We learned this from the Parishudh field staff at Gulbarga, where toilet coverage increased from 1,500 to over 10,000 toilets very quickly*.

A new behavior pattern around toilet usage also emerged in our observational research. In places where the space available for Open Defecation decreased, more and more women started to use toilets. We saw this in Sangwar village, Yadgir district where only women seemed to be using toilets. Men, however, continued to go outside. During our conversations, we saw that toilet usage was considered a necessity for women only. We wondered if this was a result of the focus on women in the earlier motivation initiatives. By solving the problem of low demand, had a new problem of partial usage been inadvertently created? We could also argue that this might just be another excuse used by men, since they still don’t have a reason to use toilets.

While we can debate the cause, it is probably more important to focus on the new behavior and what we need to do to change that. In an earlier post, we described sanitation as a “wicked problem” in which the problem, its causes and solution remain subjective; this statement may help us come to terms with the situation and give us some perspective. Wicked problems may not have immediate or ultimate solutions; instead, they may lead to a wave of consequences.

In line with this thinking, we have stopped asking the question of why people don’t use toilets. Instead, we are focusing on why they should. An important finding that emerged in our search for Positive Deviance behaviour, was that commitment played a major role in guiding people’s behavior. For instance, Parishudh village coordinators who were committed to the cause of preventing open defecation and who had helped in building the initial demand for toilets exhibited positive usage behavior.

Our experiment in Gunjbablad village is focused on using commitment as a lever to change behavior. As part of this experiment, we asked each household to first commit towards keeping their surroundings clean by using their toilet, and also to pay Re. 1 each (Rs 30 per month) for cleaning services. For this nominal charge, a person would come every morning and pour water (supplied by the household) mixed with phenyl into their toilet. This system of commitment towards cleaning their toilet and surroundings along with a daily reminder as part of the cleaning process was implemented about 3 weeks ago. We started with 22 households, and have now scaled up to 50 households in the village.


Beneficiary with the Cleaning Services Receipt and the Commitment Poster pasted on his house entrance, one of the Ethnolab interventions conducted by Final Mile in North Karnataka

Last week, we went to monitor the situation in Gunjbablad and noticed a positive difference in toilet usage patterns. We know that while the rains have also played a role, there seems to be a noticeable difference in the perception of toilets among the villagers. We have also implemented some new experiments last week, and are continuing to look for levers that will lead to the desired consequence.

*Parishudh is an initiative of Infosys Foundation that is working on building toilets in Gulbarga, Yadgir and Bidar districts of North Karnataka. On a visit in early 2013 to review the progress, the Arghyam team noticed a clear usage problem with constructed toilets. Essentially, toilets had been built by Parishudh but were still not being used due to a behaviour problem, primarily. Final Mile has used this as their “control” area for the Ethnolab, in preparation for the pilot roll out in Davangere.


3 thoughts on “Partial Usage: Cause or Consequence?

  1. 1. “Highlighting why people should build toilets at home” approach has increased demand! This is what I believe a great thing to know. I’m curious as to what kind of awareness campaigns were conducted and for how long that resulted in this change? Did it involve a significant budget(labor, resources)?

    2. Also, were these 50 households chosen randomly? And how large is this number with respect to total number of households in the village?

    • Samarth

      The awareness campaign is typically a mix of presentation, videos etc followed by a debate around the need for building toilets. In the example mentioned above, Parishudh has a dedicated IEC (Information Education Communication) lead who manages these campaigns. He is supported by a couple of people from their team and they also recruit local volunteers in the villages. Typical expense would involve cost of equipments (one time cost usually), travel etc.

      These IEC campaigns serve as an initial trigger. However, it is the social contagion effect that helps in sustaining the initial excitement. Other factors like application process experience, subsidy disbursements etc also play a part. Since Parishudh is a private run initiative, this part is usually smooth.

      On your second question, households were not chosen. The village has about 190 households of which about 100 have toilets (including 15 odd under construction. The cleaning scheme was open to all and 50 households with toilets chose to pay the Rs 1 per day (30 per month) option. This built the commitment since it was their decision to sign up. It was not enforced.


  2. I am a fan of Behaviour Architecture after meeting Biju Dominic at IIT B! As a prospective entrepreneur I see great necessity and potential of this field which is sadly left out in our discussions or in academic courses that teach Social Entrepreneurship.

    As of now my query is a social one, different from the nature of discussion here. The post mentions “…a person would come every morning and pour water (supplied by the household) mixed with phenyl into their toilet”. Who was this person- sex, age, CASTE? Specifically wrt to caste, any danger of perpetuating caste hierarchies? If the household doesn’t clean its own toilet, who has agreed to clean the toilet? Do we need to work on this very important question as well?

    PS: Great work!

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