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Can smartphones solve India's sanitation monitoring conundrum?

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The new sanitation campaign in India, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), is about to bring some changes in terms of monitoring, primarily through the use of smarter technology, which will allow the inclusion of photographs and GPS geo-tags of the latrines that are being constructed in rural areas. This is intended to improve the accuracy of the monitoring system, which has been very poor in the past. But can smartphones really solve India’s sanitation conundrum? To answer that question, we’ll need to look back and understand the problems that plagued the monitoring systems of the SBM predecessors – the Total Sanitation Campaign and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.

Previous monitoring problems

The rural sanitation monitoring system in India has had two big problems: ‘what’ and ‘how’. That is: what it measures and how (badly) it measures it.
The ‘what’ problem relates to the fact that the two primary indicators that are monitored are sanitation coverage (physical progress in terms of building household latrines) and expenditure (financial progress), while the goal is to achieve toilet use and open defecation free villages. Even more worryingly, it turned out that, in reality, what was being measured was just funds disbursement – data on physical progress ran parallel to expenditure and was disconnected from actual toilet construction.

As we all know, only what is measured ends up being counted. Focusing on building toilets and making sure budgets were spent led in the past to poor quality toilet construction and corruption. The Swachh Bharat Mission’s predecessors gave little focus to Information, Education and Communication towards affecting behaviour change, and as a result the use of latrines and good hygienic practices remained low.

Next, the ‘how’ problem – over reporting (recording more progress than had actually been made). 80% of the toilets reported during the Total Sanitation Campaign (between 2001 and 2011) were found ‘missing’ – that means no evidence of their existence was found by the 2011 Census.

This had two main causes. Firstly, there were strong incentives to over report. Stringent deadlines for latrine construction targets did not take into account the human resources and capacity required at the local level to actually meet these targets. This lack of capacity affected both implementation, with poor construction of latrines, quickly falling into disrepair, and monitoring, which was undertaken as a rushed box ticking exercise, with figures from Gram Panchayats being collected at the block (sub-district) level and then reported upwards.
There were also strong vested interests among those involved in the campaign, which were best served with high coverage figures irrespective of ground realities. The other main cause was the lack of verification of what was being reported, and subsequent absence of penalties for over reporting. Ultimately, there were no processes or mechanisms for a third party (i.e. a neutral entity without a vested interest in hiding over reporting) to verify the accuracy of the numbers reported.

A need for external verification

Smart monitoring technologies have the potential to allow better verification and therefore reduce over reporting. Technical aspects of this will need to be refined, such as ensuring that the picture of the latrine and its geo-position are taken simultaneously and that this information is linked with the existing sanitation databases.

Having geo-tagged pictures of latrines could make it easy for a third party to verify the accuracy of the data reported. With regular random-sample checks by an external agency, over reporting would be easily uncovered and soon reduced.

However, there are no provisions yet in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan for such third party verification, so this potential may not be realised. The smart monitoring system on its own can only tackle partially the second cause of the ‘how’ problem (lack of verification). And the first cause (strong incentives to over report) remains untouched, as even more ambitious construction targets are made while capacity at the local level remains the same.

The ‘what’ problem persists, too, as the key indicators for success still relate to the physical progress and financial progress – building toilets and disbursing funds. However, the intention to capture information on toilet usage is a positive development. How this will be put into operation is crucial – what exactly will be measured and when – and how it will be followed up in terms of course correction measures where there are high levels of unused latrines.

Three priorities

For the new monitoring system to be effective, there are three immediate priorities.

The most important one is to set up a third party verification system, where an external agency regularly checks the accuracy of the data, surveying a random sample of households in every block in order to verify the existence of a functional toilet and usage patterns within the household (for every household member).

Local NGOs and communities – Gram Panchayats (GP), Self Help Groups or Village Water and Sanitation Committees – also have a role to play in monitoring and verification, so they should have easy access to the monitoring data and to mechanisms for eventually reporting discrepancies between these and the ground realities. WaterAid’s mobile phone GPS-based monitoring pilot in Ichhawar block in the state of Madhya Pradesh illustrates the benefits of the involvement of people and groups at grassroots level; sharing GP-level synthesis reports in community meetings has proved to be useful not only for validating the data about toilet construction and use, but also as a way to initiate debate and motivate those who still defecate in the open.

The second priority goes beyond the monitoring system and entails ensuring review and course correction mechanisms within the SBM, so that the information coming from the monitoring leads to actions. Block, District and State Water and Sanitation Missions should be reinvigorated and need to meet regularly. One of their main tasks should be to analyse the data from monitoring and verification (including coverage-usage gaps and over reporting), gather qualitative insights to better understand the shortcomings, and decide the necessary corrective actions.

Lastly, at a technical level, the toilet use indicators included in the monitoring system need to be specified. It is important that they look beyond the household, including the practices of individual household members, and beyond toilet use, including hygienic practices. Inspiration can be drawn from the Icchawar pilot, where the indicators collected include the availability of water for sanitation, handwashing at critical times, and disposal of child excreta.

What is monitored becomes the priority

Acquiring and distributing the smartphones, providing support and training, and ensuring adequate connectivity to upload the data have serious cost implications. Without the complementary actions suggested, the potential of this smart monitoring technology won’t be realised. The investment won’t be justifiable in terms of cost-effectiveness; resources would be better spent in other areas, such as reinforcing the capacity at the block and Gram Panchayat level to implement the campaign.

In sanitation, as in any other sector, what is monitored ends up becoming the priority. So it is paramount to have the right indicators and to measure them with enough accuracy. In other words, we need to monitor what can be counted, and to monitor it well.

Andrés Hueso is Senior Policy Analyst Sanitation for WaterAid UK.

Date: 23 March 2015