Rapid Action Learning units – real time learning and adaptation for Swachh Bharat Mission

26 April 2016

On a recent visit to a village in central India, we felt as if we had travelled back in time to the days of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), when toilets were built as a tick-box exercise. Over a hundred concrete stalls with latrine pans had been built in the settlement. We call them concrete stalls instead of toilets: few were functional as they had faulty designs and connections to pits. Only one was in use – well, technically two – one as an actual toilet and the other as a storehouse for electric material. To be fair, this was the only such village we encountered in two weeks of field visits throughout the country. While we do believe that TSC’s successor, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), is steadily becoming more human behaviour-focused, and the quality of implementation on the ground is improving, the programme is still riddled with challenges.

What worried us most is that the SBM staff who chose the village for a visit were unaware of this situation. They took us there possibly because it appeared as a high performer on their monitoring system (lots of toilets built!), not knowing that the process was solely construction driven. There were no efforts to change behaviour, and no quality assurance. This hints at the fact that decision makers in SBM suffer a dearth of insights from ground realities. This is not new, but a long standing problem in India’s sanitation campaigns leading to strong policy inertia. Guidelines and implementation mechanisms remain unchanged despite poor results. For instance, the convergence of the then Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which nose-dived from day one, was called off only after two years of stunted progress. If Mr. Modi’s dream of a clean India by 2019 is to come true; learning, review and course correction needs to happen much faster. Regionally, the need for this has also been acknowledged as a priority. In the 2016 South Asian Conference on Sanitation, in Dhaka, a key commitment of the declaration was to ‘promote continual learning and sharing of experiences and innovations’.

In this line of thought, the guideline of the Swachh Bharat Mission introduced a new concept: Rapid Action Learning Units (RALUs). These are small and versatile teams to keep decision makers in touch and up-to-date with ground realities in order to learn and adapt quickly to emerging obstacles and changing situations. They identify successes and bottlenecks conducting rapid, sharp inquiries and research, then share findings without delay with those who need to act further. Although RALUs have been stipulated in the national guideline, it has been left to the states to decide if and how to set these up in practice. Andhra Pradesh recently made a bold move and started the first RALU in the country, in collaboration with WaterAid India and Participatory Research in Asia.

We had an opportunity to spend a few days with the RALU team in Andhra Pradesh in February and visit a few villages. Formed in January 2016, the team has four enthusiastic and committed staff, with extensive experience in sanitation and participatory research. They spend a lot of time in rural areas, going from one village to the next trying to capture success stories, innovations, and obstacles. They then aim to report their findings on a quarterly basis to an advisory committee formed by key state level officials from different departments and chaired by the Principal Secretary of the Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Department. They also intend to share lessons at local levels, and with the wider public through various platforms.

The RALU will enable the state of Andhra Pradesh to learn in real time about the SBM implementation, while constantly adapting and improving. RALUs represent a great opportunity across the country, and should be a key component of efforts to achieve the Swachh Bharat Mission. Especially in current times, where political priority for SBM is at all levels; with activities and efforts picking up, high demand to yield open defecation free Gram Panchayats, it is more important than ever to understand ground realities and addressing any bottlenecks and challenges that arise along the way.

Andhra Pradesh is showing the way on how to do this, and their experience will be invaluable to those who follow. There is already strong interest from a few states to set up a RALU, and several development partners are eager to support such efforts. This is the time to set up RALUs so that the dream of an open defecation free India by October 2019 does not fizzle out.

On our visits, we also ran across a heartening story of achievement in Kappala Doddi Gram Panchayat where the zeal of a sarpanch, and community engagement through a door to door campaign, led to the eradication of open defecation in the span of a few months. Here, we also learnt of an innovation that tackles the problem of homes that lacked space for latrine construction. They built a block of privately owned toilets in the open area where people used to defecate. On our field visits with the RALU team in Andhra Pradesh, we also saw a couple of obstacles, the most relevant and common one being that sanitation in schools clearly lags behind, as no acceptable systems exist for operation and maintenance of sanitation, water and handwashing facilities.

Andrés Hueso is Senior Policy Analyst – Sanitation with WaterAid UK and N Sudhakar is the Programme Coordinator for South Region.

This blog first appeared on the WaterAid India blog on the 22nd April 2016.