Generating demand for toilets: Experiences from Davangere, Karnataka

Author: Radhika Viswanathan

When Arghyam decided to work on behaviour change in sanitation in 2013, Davangere in Karnataka was the pilot district of choice. At that time, though open defecation was practised, a little over half of the households had toilets, patronized mainly by the women. Convenience and safety were cited as the prime motivators for toilet usage there.

As we got talking about what motivates people to build toilets, it became clearer that constructing them were not purely financial decisions. There are several other factors that come to play such as availability of open space around the house, access to water and also where the house is located – for example, most of the houses towards the centre of the village had toilets while those towards the periphery did not see the immediate need to construct toilets as they had access to open spaces around them to answer nature’s call.

Given the situation, what was the impact of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), the government’s rural sanitation scheme, in Davangere?

Lack of awareness

A visit to the district was an eye opener. We found that the awareness level as well as the reach of NBA was rather limited. Only one out of three of all toilets constructed in 2013 were through NBA funds. Less than half of the houses that lacked toilets were aware of the government incentive available for constructing toilets. And those who had heard about the scheme were not very clear about the process as the details varied from Panchayat to Panchayat.

This lack of awareness was corroborated when a survey of the effectiveness of IEC activities revealed that less than a third of the respondents found of them of limited or no use to learn more about the Abhiyan. They seemed to get the message about health and cleanliness but somehow missed out the part on constructing toilets.

Time consuming processes

Constructing of toilets through NBA assistance is quite long drawn out: it took an average of 57 days to commence construction, another 86 days for households to receive the incentive once they have applied for the toilet under the NBA. So a total of 5 months from start to finish! While most of the families received the full amount due to them by the end of the process, some families had to wait around longer to lay their hands on the incentive. This eroded the confidence of the people to a large extent.

Awareness and action mismatch

An interesting find was the gap between awareness and action in the district. While around 85% of the respondents found the IEC materials useful, nearly 40% of this group sat on it without acting. The communication campaign failed to generate the required demand.

Delving a little deeper, we found that most of the money allocated for communication (IEC) under NBA went unutilised; in 2013-14 for example, only 2.82% of the allocated IEC budget for Karnataka was utilized (as compared to the national average of 5.97%).

Contextualizing communication

This got us thinking: could all of this be acting as a deterrent to those who wanted to build toilets? On one hand, the IEC messaging wasn’t as effective as it should be and wasn’t reaching enough people, while on the other; the messages themselves were rather limited to issues relating to health and cleanliness, which didn’t seem to engage the people enough.

Could we, therefore, design better communication that used these funds more effectively and get people to build more toilets? After all, good communication had been used widely in campaigns such as polio eradication, and even to sell products like toothpaste or soap.

It’s all about contextualizing the communication. We found that in Davangere, girls and women already perceived and expressed a strong need for toilets, but in most cases it was not for them to decide. Decision making remained largely at the hands of men.

Also, as it turned out, our research found that emotional motivators worked better than rational motivators (like cleanliness, or hygiene). Therefore, in order to bridge this gap between need (expressed by women) and action (decision making being a male domain), the campaign tapped into the idea of using male responsibility as a motivator for toilet construction. This gave birth to the ‘responsible father’ campaign.

The second part of the campaign looked at breaking down the lack of trust in the scheme. Since most people found it complicated, we simplified the messaging of the campaign to help people realize that there was a straightforward six-step process involved. Since we found that penetration of information on the scheme had been poor in the past, we identified all the households eligible for toilets under the scheme and ‘took the message to them’: door to door invitations with information on the scheme and household eligibility.

Finally, the most senior bureaucrat in the district, the CEO, made a promise to the people to disburse the incentive within twenty days of construction. This direct communication from the District’s CEO was seen as a powerful affirmation of the scheme, and a personal promise that the scheme would not let citizens down. 

Everything came together as a single package, which was then rolled out in 100 villages in early 2014. Despite a few hiccoughs, the campaign was largely positive. It was found that in the immediate aftermath of the campaign, 37.6% of households without toilets had taken some action towards building a toilet – either by beginning the application process, or starting construction, or even completing construction. This was compared to a separate set of villages to which the campaign did not extend, where only 11.6% of households had taken similar action. Overall, toilet coverage in the campaign villages increased by 10% compared to 2% in other villages. And what more, the entire campaign was rolled out using funds already allocated under the NBA, not a single extra rupee.

A pilot like this proves that it is possible to make a government scheme like the NBA more effective. If the communication is well conceived and executed, it will be well received which in turn will push people into action within in a short span of time.

The author works for Arghyam, a charitable foundation established by Rohini Nilekani. Arghyam’s experiences supporting sanitation initiatives across the country are shared here.