A century since women began to congregate and petition governments for their rights, the 8th day of March reminds the world every year, that we still are not quite a gender equal world. So #BreakTheBias is not really a surprising theme for International Women’s Day in 2022. While 21st Century Indian women are empowered and often in step with their male counterparts, in the rural expanses of our vast country, women are often still apologetic about their femininity. Many have only recently acquired the right to the privacy of a toilet in their homes and at schools for girls, thanks to the success of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
While the Swachh Bharat Mission, flagged off by the Prime Minister in 2014, is a Union government initiative, on the ground it is being implemented by the state governments and local communities. BW Businessworld shines the spotlight on two women leaders, who have been able to create a platform that brings together governments, non-government organisations and Corporate India to champion programmes that reach the right to clean water and sanitation to every home in the remotest corner of the country. The India Sanitation Coalition (ISC), that operates out of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) premises in New Delhi, is spearheaded by Naina Lal Kidwai as Chair and Natasha Patel as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and has been enormously successful in channelling corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds into water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives.
Excerpts of a conversation with Madhumita Chakraborty
BW Businessworld: Ms Lal Kidwai, since women broke through the glass ceiling to reach leadership positions in many spheres of life ‒ the way you did, first as Country Head of HSBC’s operations in India and then as President of India’s oldest chamber of commerce, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) ‒ they have been making an impressive impact on society. Do tell us a little bit about the India Sanitation Coalition.
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: The India Sanitation Coalition (ISC), agenda of safe and sustainable sanitation brings multiple organisations to work together on a common platform through a range of actions. Our primary focus was on private sector participation and showcasing best practices in urban and rural sanitation programmes of the country. We worked in partnership with allied organisations for leading the discourse on sustainable sanitation; convening, curating, and disseminating best practices in the sanitation advocacy space and providing inputs into the policy aspects of sanitation through participation in allied forums.
Through the tireless efforts of the government and several agencies, the country was in a position to declare itself ODF (open defecation free) as part of Phase I of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), and this was no small feat when we look at the impact that the mission has created across India.
The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has saved millions of lives and has had a lasting impact on health, environment, household income and savings, national income and savings, inclusiveness for senior citizens and the differently-abled, and most importantly the safety and dignity of women.
BW Businessworld: What makes women more sensitive to social causes? Is it the primal maternal instinct in women that comes to play whenever they are in a leadership role? What has been your experience as Chair of the India Sanitation Coalition?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: Women’s roles have historically revolved around the lives of their families and the communities they live in. While men may have taken the more strategic decisions for society in the past, it was the women who were primarily left to manage the implementation of these decisions and hence played a pivotal role in areas that impacted all their lives. Water and Sanitation were both historically considered women’s responsibilities to fulfill for their families and hence logical for them to be more in tune with what is required.
In the rural context, there are several examples of the impact of women on the outcomes of the mission and the roles they have played in helping India achieve open defecation-free (ODF) status. UNICEF, BMGF (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and Sambodhi’s study of the SBM’s impact on women conducted in 2020 revealed something truly gratifying: 91 per cent of women were found to save up to an hour of their day, earlier spent on walking to defecation sites; 88 per cent of women emerged as proud owners of a toilet; 81 per cent of women were reported not worrying about privacy while changing menstrual hygiene material anymore; since they did not have to go out in the open to defecate any longer, 93 per cent of women felt safer from assault, no longer fearing attacks from animals or men, and urinary infections decreased.
There are examples in the early days of the programme where women were not consulted in decisions taken on sanitation-related matters such as the building and use of toilets and failing to take into account the prevalent socio-cultural norms, which for generations have defined the status of women as one that needs to be protected from all forms of exposure, while at the same time, forcing them to defecate in the open even if this is in groups.
However, much work has also been done to alter some of these beliefs in the last few years, with women clearly coming to the forefront to take charge of addressing their own needs supported by various government schemes and NGOs working alongside them. For example, in Odisha, women and transgender Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have been engaged in the operation and maintenance of treatment facilities (SeTPs) in eight cities; in Jharkhand, trained women masons built over 15 lakh toilets in one year, and the state was declared open defecation free (rural) much ahead of the national cut-off date of 2 October, 2019.
These examples are rapidly increasing throughout the country, wherever women have been able to push through for reforms that better their overall wellbeing either through the help of support groups or through community-led efforts. Water management, sanitary complexes that answer their needs, and a host of other requirements to help them in their daily lives are now being driven by them rather than waiting for them to happen at the behest of the government or the menfolk in their communities. The government is encouraging water committees run by women to ensure the ongoing success of the programme.
BW Businessworld: The India Sanitation Coalition was set up in June 2015, barely eight months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on 2 October 2014. What or who inspired this novel enterprise?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: We are among those who not only witnessed the nation’s journey to an ODF destination but also partnered with the initiative that aimed at beating the menace of open defecation, led by none other than the Prime Minister of India. After brainstorming with Hari Menon at BMGF (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) Neeraj Jain, then CEO of WaterAid and now Country Director India PATH, and others, my husband (the late Rashid K. Kidwai) and I decided to work in sanitation in early 2014. We co-founded the India Sanitation Coalition with support from BMGF and housed it in FICCI and were delighted that soon after, the Prime Minister launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in October 2014, making our job much easier. We have worked closely with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Mohua (Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Development) in a productive partnership to further sanitation in the country.
BW Businessworld: The India Sanitation Coalition facilitated a survey of approximately 75 districts across India that were implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission goals of eradicating open defecation. Do the ISC findings suggest that SBM targets are on track?
Natasha Patel, CEO ISC: The document that you are referring to is the one that has captured the ideas from ISC partner experiences, as well as e-discussions on the ISC sponsored India Chapter of the SuSanA (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance) platform. It was built with secondary research to present the status of SBM in a comprehensive manner covering the said geography.
Let me quickly add here that the said report is dated April 2017 by which time SBM was barely midway in implementation and most of the institutions for programme implementation were in various stages of development. It was only towards the latter half of the programme, 2017 onwards till the end of phase I of the mission in October 2019 that the programme changed gears and the major focus shifted from toilet building to behaviour change.
Today, all of us know that people’s participation has made the Swachh Bharat Mission the world’s largest behaviour change programme that helped India achieve its ODF status in just about five years.
BW Businessworld: The Union government has been proactive in its messaging on the Swachh Bharat Mission. At one point the Nirmal Bharat Yatra had been a widely propagated mission with Vidya Balan as a brand ambassador. Since it came into being, the ISC too has chosen communication of the Swachh Bharat Mission objectives as its major drive, through initiatives like the ISC Knowledge Fellowships for media persons and the ISC-FICCI Sanitation Awards. What more needs to be done to implement the Swachh Bharat Mission goals on a mission mode in the way of communication?
Natasha Patel, CEO ISC: We instituted the ISC-FICCI Awards to document best practices and disseminate these examples enabling players to scale up and others to replicate them. There is evidence of the undeniable success of these awards in achieving significant outcomes through their past five editions. The ISC-FICCI Sanitation Awards are the key awards in the sanitation sector and have over a five-year period established their leadership at a national level.
To respond to your question on what more could be done to achieve sustainability ‒ we need more private sector engagement and more NGOs and practitioners. Some large corporate houses, convinced of the merits of sanitation, have expressed the need for creative and innovative funding models to take the sanitation programme from toilet construction and maintenance to behaviour change, and to seeding entrepreneurship in the space. They have cited some of the successful models of community-led public health interventions (HIV AIDS, Pulse Polio, etc.) of the mid-1990s and 2000s, where corporates had come together to create a difference, leading to the decline or complete eradication of the disease, and argued that sanitation provided similar opportunities for a long-term impact with potential for success in promoting hygiene and immunity of citizens. This changed disposition of corporates vis-à-vis sanitation is likely to go a long way in helping India achieve its targets of ODF sustainability. And ISC is committed to partnering with them to achieve these objectives.
We also need more finance in the sector. We have worked on increasing microfinance for sanitation, bank finance, and credit enhancement products and funding for entrepreneurs.
BW Businessworld: The India Sanitation Coalition’s mission to bring organisations and individuals together to find sustainable solutions for sanitation through a “platform for corporates, civil society groups, government, financial institutions, media donors, bilateral and multilateral organisations and experts” has a special significance. Since the Union government is broadly speaking, an enabler of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the actual implementation of the projects are at the state and community level, funding these projects is obviously crucial. The India Sanitation Coalition and FICCI have been able to channel corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds into SBM projects through their corporate members. Would you like to mention some of these initiatives?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: While we have been involved in several corporate-led water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives, let me mention a recent initiative that is led by ISC in collaboration with DDWS (Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Union Ministry of Jal Shakti), Government of India. It has been named the 100-districts model block or village initiative.
Through this initiative, corporates, development partners, and the government would work together to achieve sustainable solid and liquid waste management (SLWM) in villages of selected 100 districts and demonstrate effectiveness and efficiency in the implementation of SLWM arrangements that could be scaled up across the country. The initiative also aims to look at the availability and access to clean water as well as the reuse of treated wastewater in agriculture as part of a circular economy. The allied benefits on livelihoods, health, nutrition, education, and a host of other issues will also be measured with the end result being what is deemed a reconstructed village model.
The chief objectives of the collaboration would be to create opportunities for the private sector to engage in the implementation of ODF plus components as part of Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen; improve the SLWM arrangements (including plastic waste and faecal sludge management) in over 100 districts across the country through leveraging innovative, decentralised and responsive technologies from corporates; garner technical, managerial, and financial capabilities of corporates to step up the SLWM infrastructure in the country; and create model blocks/villages that would act as a “lighthouse” for other blocks/villages in terms of local planning for SLWM, implementation of innovative technologies and approaches, the convergence of funds ( Swachh Bharat, Fifteenth Finance Commission, MNREGS, corporate funding, etc.) and effective utilisation of resources for achieving ODF plus under Swachh Bharat.
BW Businessworld: The goal of the Swachh Bharat Mission was to make India open defecation free by 2019. It has now embarked on phase two of the mission, which involves interventions for safe management of solid and liquid waste in villages, which no doubt will require more technical expertise and funds. What role will the India Sanitation Coalition play at this stage?
Natasha Patel, CEO ISC: The ISC is working along with its partners, corporate India, and the government on a holistic approach to answering the needs of rural India.
The WASH challenges of urban India are somewhat of a different challenge and while the same players i.e., the private sector, implementation agencies, and the government are required to work jointly, the size and scale of the issues to be tackled are significantly larger and more complex. The role of technology and funding is critical, linked to the size and scale of the projects that are to be implemented and private sector partnership is crucial for both.
The main outcome of zero waste cities as declared by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) as the final target is now the adopted approach for all urban WASH initiatives and will have the same expected outcomes as the rural initiatives differing mainly in scale and complexity.
BW Businessworld: As the India Sanitation Coalition literature rightly points out the Swachh Bharat Mission objectives are in step with the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals that aim to ensure clean and safe water, health, and hygiene for all. Sustainable sanitation projects will ensure that waterways are not polluted in rural Bharat. Would you like to share any instances where projects coordinated by ISC have achieved these objectives?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: The rural integrated programme, which in its Phase 1, will involve 100 districts, has an expected outcome of a complete and integrated approach to village life. It aims to ensure that clean water is provided to all village households either through local water bodies or through access to groundwater wherever possible. Linked to this is the need for reusing wastewater through simple nature-based treatment methodologies and rainwater harvesting. As the project has just started it is too early to speak of outcomes or success.
BW Businessworld: Apart from bridging the urban-rural divide in sanitation facilities, the Swachh Bharat Mission also refurbishes India’s image as an inclusive society. Does the India Sanitation Coalition have any such feedback from the ground, when engaging with communities and NGOs working on SBM projects?
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair ISC: Yes, we have such evidence and part of it has also been documented by us for easy reference.
Every year, we do a publication called the Business of Change series. Last year, it captured the success stories in a compilation that was entitled ‘Gendered Approach to WASH’. The publication, which was forwarded by the Additional Secretary, DDWS, Government of India, was an effort in collaboration with our partner KPMG, aligned to the coalition’s mandate to curate and disseminate best practices in the sanitation advocacy space. We hope this knowledge product will go a long way in providing a ready reckoner for all those who as programme managers have an intent to stand up with a conviction for what they believe is the necessity to achieve the WASH goals of India without the equity around gender being compromised.
Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair India Sanitation Coalition and Ms Natasha Patel, CEO India Sanitation Coalition