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The nudge that got Indians toilet-trained

An architect of the Swachh Bharat Mission outlines the tactic used by 'swachhagrahis' to get Indians to change their behaviour

An artist gives finishing touches to indicate Swachh Survekshan 2021 and create awareness of keeping the city clean. (Praful Gangurde/HT photo)
An artist gives finishing touches to indicate Swachh Survekshan 2021 and create awareness of keeping the city clean. (Praful Gangurde/HT photo) (HT_PRINT)

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) endeavoured to practise what Richard Thaler, the 2017 Nobel Prize-winning economist, preached on behavioural economics in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, co-authored with Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein. In particular, the art of nudging: how small strategic interventions help individuals and communities change deep-seated behaviours. While the interventions were at the level of a village, given that there were more than 6,00,000 villages in the country to cover, the SBM had to undertake nudging at a scale probably unimaginable to Thaler and Sunstein.

Nudging communities to stimulate demand for toilets, and that too for 550 million people, needed a radical approach to behaviour change. After consulting numerous experts and grassroots-level practitioners, we evolved a twin strategy: ramp up interpersonal communication at the village level through trained village motivators, and, at the national level, use popular icons such as Bollywood stars and national sportspersons to promote on mass media the message of using toilets, and keep the buzz alive. For the scaling up of the former and, clearly, the more important method of behaviour change, I have to credit Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most prominent public policy intellectuals and at the time the President of the influential think tank, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Pratap published a regular op-ed in the Indian Express, a leading national daily, and was usually critical of the Union government. I had never met him, but one day got intrigued and reached out to him after reading his December 2016 op-ed where he criticized the SBM, among other flagship programmes of the government. His criticism of the SBM was mainly to the effect that we were only focused on the construction of toilets and not really trying to change behaviour.

A week later, I met Pratap at the CPR premises where we had a working lunch of idlis and dosas. Addressing his criticism, I explained that our top priority was indeed to change behaviour and stimulate demand for toilets, which then would have to be constructed. I shared our idea of using trained village-level motivators for changing behaviour and ended with: ‘We’re trying our best, but if you have any suggestions, we’ll be happy to consider them.’

After some thought Pratap said our claim that the SBM was mainly about behaviour change would definitely be strengthened if we could credibly establish that we were developing an army of grassroots-level motivators, preferably one in each of the country’s 6,00,000 villages, trained in behaviour change techniques. This, he added, would definitely give teeth to our claim, which he said currently rang rather hollow. I took his advice, and we set about creating an army of trained village motivators, who became the backbone of the programme and to whom the PM gave the brilliant name Swachhagrahi (grassroots sanitation practitioner), linking them permanently to the Mahatma’s powerful term ‘satyagrahi’ (practitioner of truth). Today, the SBM has over 6,00,000 such swachhagrahis, an average of one per village.

'Method in the Madness: Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider' by Parameswaran Iyer published by HarperCollins India, 280 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
'Method in the Madness: Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider' by Parameswaran Iyer published by HarperCollins India, 280 pages, 499

Assisting the DM, like the ZSBP, the swachhagrahis were trained in the community approach to sanitation, and played a critical role in behaviour change on the ground through interpersonal communication with the village community. They used an array of context-specific ‘nudge’ tools and techniques, including social mapping and extensive discussion at both the community and individual household levels to convince people about the usefulness of building a toilet and then using it. In some cases, what worked was the health angle, that is, making parents, especially mothers, realize that defecating in the open meant flies would carry the excreta back to the food at home and consequently spread disease. In others, a warning to the community about the contamination of groundwater through open defecation was a strong motivator. Disgust at the shameful habit of open defecation would also be evoked. In the end, after an intense face-to-face discussion with the community, the village would be ‘triggered’ – the SBM’s more potent proxy for ‘nudged’ – into accepting the fact that open defecation was not good for its people and it would consequently commit itself to becoming ODF in the shortest possible time.

Over the programme period, depending on the context, triggering took on many shapes and hues. One of the most powerful triggering methods that I witnessed first-hand in a village in UP involved a swachhagrahi bringing with her a bottle of water to share with others during a ratri chaupal. It was hot and dry and it had been a long day for most of the assembled people. The villagers watched intently as the swachhagrahi passed the water bottle around. Some took a sip and passed it to others, and it eventually came back to the swachhagrahi. As she continued to talk, she plucked a strand of hair off her head, bent to dip the strand into a nearby pile of cow dung, and inserted it into the water bottle. She then offered the bottle of water to the people around her. This time around, she found no takers. When she asked the villagers why they didn’t want to have the water this time, they immediately responded that there was excreta in it. She then asked them if they had noticed flies sitting on their pile of excreta when they defecated in the open and then seen the same flies sit on their roti when they were eating a meal. They nodded in hushed silence. She then connected their disgust at being asked to drink from the contaminated water bottle with the image of a fly sitting on human excreta and then on their food. Surely, she stated theatrically, eating food on which the fly’s six legs had deposited somebody’s excreta was a definite no-no!

And so, a powerful feeling of disgust was created with respect to defecating in the open. The next time any of the assembled people saw a fly on their roti they would immediately think of the excreta carried by the fly to their roti and feel disgusted. The disgust factor would then trigger them into wanting to use a toilet instead of defecating in the open, and also motivate them to persuade others to follow suit and, finally, come together as a community to achieve ODF status for their entire village.

Excerpted from Method in the Madness: Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider by Parameswaran Iyer with permission from HarperCollins India.

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