Inside the plush Bangabandhu International Convention Centre in Dhaka, the atmosphere was mostly charged barring a few occasional yawns and naps. There were colourful country stalls (Sri Lanka being the most impressive as it was designed through the lens of architectural heritage) and various voluntary organisations putting their best foot forward. There were fleeting glances, passionate debates, renewed friendships and new acquaintances. Amidst all this, India’s newly found national obsession with ‘sanitation’ in the wake of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) got a fillip with SACOSAN VI (South Asian Conference on Sanitation), hosted by Bangladesh from 11-13 January, 2016. While it may sound a bit strange that we needed to go to Dhaka in order to boost our ongoing national mission in India, it made perfect sense once we reached and listened to a range of conversations. For example, Dr Kamal Kar, the founder of CLTS Foundation, put it very aptly, ‘while South Asia contributes 38 per cent of the world’s open defecators, if you take India out, it comes down to just 8 per cent’.
The very importance of a recurring conference at the South Asia level, hence, was underlined again and again, a process which started in 2003 with Bangladesh being the original host back then. The entire idea behind governments, think tanks, civil society actors, and multi-lateral as well as bi-lateral agencies coming together was to create a common platform to find common solutions to a common problem through shared commitments.
The first day’s official review presented by the representatives from the South Asian governments (which included India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives) recognised the long way we all have travelled. Bangladesh has achieved 99 per cent Open Defecation Free (ODF) status since then (about 28 per cent coming through community latrines); Afghanistan has only one-fifth of the population defecating in the open now; Nepal has declared 35 out of 75 districts as ODF with about 81 per cent of its population covered and Pakistan has met its Millennium Development Goal commitments. It’s not to say that India hasn’t contributed to all this, in fact, according to one presenter, out of the total progress made in the region since the last SACOSAN, India contributed to 66 per cent of the total gains.
What also came out clearly was the diversity of experiences and challenges each country faces! Just compare the humongous 1.3 billion population of India (with nearly half of them defecating in the open) with Maldives’ total population of 3,50,000, or the fact that while ‘behaviour change’ is the buzzword in India, Bangladesh faces second generation problem of faecal sludge management with most of its people using toilets to defecate. Sri Lanka and Bhutan are struggling hard to reach populations in tough and inaccessible terrains. It was for this reason that parallel side events were organised on varied themes of technology, financing, community approaches to sanitation, hygiene, urban sanitation, climate change and its links with sanitation giving a glimpse of this very diversity.
One of course wished that the papers presented were chosen more carefully giving a representative feel to the region and outcomes/recommendations laid out clearly for each of them. WaterAid India was represented by Nitya Jacob, Head of Policy, who made a presentation on the organisation’s efforts to create a public conversation around menstrual hygiene through its innovative posters and Binu Arickal, Regional Manager – West, who talked of the challenges one faced when using Community led Total Sanitation (CLTS) methods to mobilise communities in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. There was palpable tension between the official commitments through the last day’s joint declaration versus the plethora of reds and oranges given by the civil society through its Traffic Light paper on the last round of commitments. A similar tension got reflected between the glorious achievements listed in the official country papers and the session in which the elderly, differently abled, women and adolescents shared their tough lives on the ground struggling to access sanitation services with dignity. But the common bond which united many of them was the fact that there were champions on both sides, one working hard to make the system work, the other to mobilise communities in diverse circumstances.
Realising the Swachh Bharat dream
Predictably enough, regional diversity found its own microcosm inside India itself. The India centric side event on Swachh Bharat Mission underlined this effectively. There was M. Geetha, State Mission Director of SBM, sharing how Chhattisgarh pioneered in routing its incentives to the poor through Village Water and Sanitation Committees with individuals being termed as ‘owners’ or ‘maaliks’ instead of the sarkari ‘beneficiaries’ term being hitgrahi. Punjab shared its unique but increasingly common problem of providing sanitation services to 30-40 lakh migrant labourers. And then there was the dynamic District Collector Manmeet Kaur Nanda from 24 North Parganas in West Bengal elucidating how they had managed to build 1.1 million toilets in a year (out of a total of 8.8 million reported nationwide) using a diverse range of community mobilisation techniques. We also heard K Vasuki, the Executive Director of Sachitwa Mission of Kerala on second generational solid and liquid waste management challenges while passionately talking about the campaign she was running in the state beginning with her own home based composting example. It was in the fitness of things that India was represented by a 70 member strong delegation at an event attended by over 500 delegates.
In the end, there was also an insightful review of SACOSANs Past, Present and Future presented by the venerable Ravi Narayanan of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum who emphasised on the twin aspects of official commitments and the event providing a ‘market place of ideas’. His observation that the divide between the government and the non-government seemed to be dissolving was evident in the Indian delegates WhatsApp group conversations, which had begun planning an ambitious ‘IndoSan’ even before they boarded the return flight.
For all the action at SACOSAN VI, you can also checkout our storify.Avinash Kumar is Director, Program & Policy at WaterAid India. He Tweets as @Avinashkoomar