Policy priorities evolve or change with time. As we transition from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are taking policy centre stage in most emerging and developing countries. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is, for instance, a manifestation of this importance. One vexing situation has been the large disparities in access to WASH services across different segments of the population. Worldwide, 663 million people lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. In India, 128 million lack safe water services and about 840 million people don’t have sanitation services. How can this be improved?
Our search for answers began with an analysis of the various WASH policies formulated by the Central and State governments. Specifically, we analysed the robustness of WASH policies that were formulated in the last 15 years. Our assessment of robustness was based on the comprehensiveness of the policy document, that is, whether it clearly specified the following four parameters: the beneficiary segments; the barriers faced by the different segments; the strategies that would be used to improve outcomes; and the type of outcomes, namely, adequacy, accessibility, affordability, and quality and safety. The robustness of the policy was classified as high, moderate, or low depending on how many of the four parameters have been clearly mentioned in the policy. The argument is that policies that are highly robust can be more effective in improving WASH outcomes.
WASH sectors being concurrent subjects, policies have been formulated by the Central government and respective State governments. We compared the national and State policies for their robustness. It would have been expected that State policies would have a higher degree of robustness as they are closer to the site of implementation. On the contrary, we found that WASH policies formulated by State governments have low robustness as compared to that of national policies. The capacity for policymaking of State governments thus needs to be further strengthened.
We also compared the policy robustness of WASH policies from India with 10 other developing countries drawn from Asia and Africa. Results show a substantial scope for improvement in policy robustness for India. Only 22 per cent of the WASH policies from India could be classified as highly robust, whereas of the policies of 10 other developing countries, 75 per cent could be classified as highly robust. While the low proportion for India could be attributed to the large number of State policies in the sample, there is no denying that the comprehensiveness of Indian WASH policies can be further improved. Governments need to realise that it is not just enough to paint a vision of the big picture, and the details glossed over. To ensure effective implementation, there should be a synchronisation of beneficiary segments, barriers, strategies, and outcomes.
Identification of the beneficiary segments is a key component of policy. The grandiose objective of ensuring universal coverage makes great political statement, but to be able to get through the distance demands a certain amount of granularity. The needs and barriers for segments of the population differ and consequently the strategies also need to be customised for the different segments. Therefore, policymakers have gradually moved away from a “one size fits all” approach to a more beneficiary-centric approach.
A traditional approach has been to segment the beneficiaries on the basis of geographical and social context (GSS). Population was therefore segmented as rural, urban, low income and so on. However, of late, segmenting the beneficiaries on the basis of the human life cycle (LCS) is gaining traction. Beneficiaries are thus segmented as children, adolescents, adults, senior citizens, and so on. We analysed the policy robustness for both the GSS and LCS segments. Policies showed a higher degree of robustness for GSS segments as compared to that of LCS segments. Contemporary thinking is that adoption of LCS can significantly help in improving the access to WASH services. However, the Indian policy engine seems to be more attuned to the GSS framework. To be able to achieve our WASH targets, it is imperative that our policies straddle both the LCS and GSS approaches, rather than restricting to the traditional GSS approach.
Among the four parameters that influence policy robustness, identification of barriers has been the Achilles heel in a majority of the policies.
Just 11 per cent of the policies that we had assessed have identified the barriers for the different segments. The robustness of policies can be enhanced if more and more policies can focus on identifying the barriers faced by the different segments in accessing WASH services. Needless to say, better identification of barriers would also have a positive impact on subsequent downstream components such as formulation of strategies and outcomes.
To conclude, a job well begun is half done. Policies are like the mariner’s compass to the captains who are in charge of implementation of large developmental programmes. They provide direction to the steering hand and help to keep the course. A more robust policy would help in achieving better outcomes from WASH projects and programmes. Our analysis shows that WASH policies in India definitely need a robustness enhancement. Policy formulation, particularly at the State level, should be strengthened. Emergent paradigms such as LCS should be introduced in addition to the traditional GSS approaches. More importantly, barriers that come in the way of access to WASH services should be given considerable focus, and not relegated to a footnote.
Thillai Rajan A. is Professor, Department of Management Studies, IIT Madras. Email: email@example.com. Reeba Devaraj is Principal Project Officer, Department of Management Studies, IIT Madras.