SACOSAN-VI – a marketplace for ideas

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/DRIK/Habibul Haque

Progress, challenges and diversity: Avinash Kumar, Director of Programmes and Policy at WaterAid India, rounds up the discussions and outcomes of the 6th South Asian Conference on Sanitation.

Inside the plush Bangabandhu International Convention Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the atmosphere was mostly charged, barring a few occasional yawns and naps. There were colourful country stalls and various voluntary organisations putting their best foot forward; there were fleeting glances, passionate debates, renewed friendships and new acquaintances.

Amidst all this, SACOSAN-VI, held on 11-13 January, gave India’s newly found national obsession with ‘sanitation’ in the wake of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) a boost.

Although it may sound a bit strange that WaterAid India needed to go to Dhaka in order to boost our ongoing national mission, it made perfect sense once we had listened to a range of conversations. Dr Kamal Kar, the founder of the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) Foundation, put the situation very aptly: “While South Asia contributes 38% of the world’s open defecators, if you take India out, it comes down to just 8%.”

The original idea behind this gathering of governments, think tanks, civil society actors, and multi-lateral and bi-lateral agencies was to create a common platform to find common solutions to a common problem through shared commitments. The importance of a recurring conference at the South Asia level since 2003 was underlined again and again.

South Asia’s sanitation progress

The first day’s official review, presented by delegates from the South Asian governments (which included India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives), recognised the long way we have all travelled. For example: Bangladesh has achieved 99% Open Defecation Free (ODF) status since the first SACOSAN (about 28% through community latrines); in Afghanistan only 20% of the population now defecates in the open; Nepal has declared 35 out of 75 districts to be ODF, covering about 81% of its population; and Pakistan has met its Millennium Development Goal commitments. According to one presenter, out of the total progress made in the region since the last SACOSAN, India contributed to 66% of the total gains.

A clear point at the conference was the diversity of experiences and challenges each country has: India has a population of 1.3 billion (nearly half of whom defecate in the open) whereas the Maldives’ has a population of 350,000; while ‘behaviour change’ is the buzzword in India, Bangladesh, where most people use toilets, faces a second generation problem of faecal sludge management; and Sri Lanka and Bhutan are trying hard to reach populations in tough and isolated terrains. Parallel side events were therefore organised on varied themes of technology, financing, community approaches, hygiene, urban sanitation and climate change.

Experiences in India

WaterAid India was represented by Nitya Jacob, Head of Policy, who presented 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 of using CLTS methods to mobilise communities in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. There was palpable tension around the differences between official statements in the declaration by governments about their joint commitments until the next SACOSAN and the plethora of red and orange markers in the civil society-led Traffic Light paper on the last round of commitments (available on WASHwatch). It seemed there were contradictions between the achievements listed in official country papers and the accounts in the session, in which older people, disabled people, women and adolescents shared their tough experiences of struggling to access sanitation services with dignity. But the common bond which united many of the participants from government, civil society and think tanks was the fact that there were champions on both side – the state and civil society, one working hard to make the system work, the other to mobilise communities in diverse circumstances.

As would be expected, regional diversity was notable within India itself; the India-centric side event on Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) underlined this effectively. M. Geetha, State Mission Director of SBM, shared how Chhattisgarh pioneered in routing its incentives to poor people through Village Water and Sanitation Committees, and termed individuals ‘owners’ or ‘maaliks’ instead of the sarkari ‘beneficiaries’ term ‘hitgrahi’. A representative from Punjab shared the state’s unique but increasingly common problem of providing sanitation services to 30-40 lakh migrant labourers. District Collector Manmeet Kaur Nanda from 24 North Parganas in West Bengal explained how 1.1 million toilets were built in the region in a year (out of 8.8 million reportedly built nationwide) using a diverse range of community mobilisation techniques. We also heard K. Vasuki, the Executive Director of Sachitwa Mission of Kerala, speak on second generational solid and liquid waste management challenges, and talk passionately about the campaign she was running in the state, beginning with her own home-based composting example.

Future commitments

At the end of the conference was an insightful review of SACOSANs past, present and future, presented by the venerable Ravi Narayanan of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, who emphasised the twin benefits of official commitments and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ which the event provides. His observation that the divide between government and non-government seemed to be dissolving was evident in the Indian delegates’ WhatsApp group conversations, in which members began planning an ambitious ‘IndoSan’ even before they boarded the return flight.

One can hope that the gap between governments and the CSOs will also progressively fade when it comes to monitoring progress – this is the significant outstanding issue from SACOSAN. A new set of commitments were tabled via the 2016 Dhaka declaration. As yet there is no agreed monitoring framework for this declaration with which to hold governments accountable. The Dhaka declaration stipulates the creation of a “functional and dynamic SACOSAN Secretariat in Sri Lanka by 2018”, which will hopefully increase governments’ monitoring capacity. Reporting on SACOSAN VI commitments will be critical to drive progress and ultimately reach everyone everywhere by 2030.

Avinash Kumar tweets as @Avinashkoomar