Why paying people to use public toilets is a bad idea

It does not solve the fundamental problem of people’s perception towards sanitation and is costly. 

The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) is contemplating paying people a rupee every time they visit the public toilet. The objective of this scheme is to incentivise people to use public toilets. This monetary incentive is not only misdirected but would also lead to a waste of financial resources.

Sanitation is a type of the Mahatma Grade Problem, and is caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. Interesting work has been done by the RICE Institute which shows that the sanitation issue is related to behavioural pattern within the country. To quote a recent study done by the RICE Institute,

“The beliefs, values, and norms about purity and pollution of private spaces and of bodies contribute to the ubiquity and social acceptability of open defecation, and that renegotiation of caste and untouchability retard and complicate the adoption of inexpensive latrine technologies that improve health in other developing regions.”

The problem with the scheme

There are two levels at which the AMC’s initiative goes wrong:

Firstly, it does not solve the larger problem i.e the people’s perception of sanitation. Providing monetary incentives does not change the general view regarding sanitation. Improving the level of sanitation and cleanliness within the country would require a change in social outlook towards this issue. A much more effective way would be to attach dishonour or disgrace to any act which generates filth or leaves the surroundings unhygienic.

For instance, a research studying the effect of “shame” versus “subsidy” in Odisha, concluded that in addition to generating widespread latrine use, attitudes surrounding the importance of privacy and dignity play a key role in influencing household demand for latrines. If applied to the urban set-up, highlighting the ‘importance of privacy and dignity’ would help reduce the number of open defecation cases.

Secondly, it would involve a high cost of implementation. As per the details mentioned, the plan is to generate revenue through advertising. However, even if this revenue covers the rupees spent on paying toilet users, it would fall short of covering the economic cost that will be incurred. The primary cost incurred would be the opportunity cost of the resources used to establish the mechanism for the payments. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to control the misuse of the subsidy by people making unnecessary visits. Please note that the expenditure made on this mechanism is over and above the resources already being spent to fine the offenders.

The scheme is apparently being replicated based on the success of a similar initiative in Darechowk, Nepal, a village with only 1,656 households. In addition to this, it is important to note that this was part of a larger initiative to make Darechowk a model village, on which Rs.1 million (US$ 13,300) was spent as of 2010.

To sum it up, it commendable on the part of the AMC to consider the incessant and highly unhygienic problem of open defecation. However, it is important that appropriate incentives are created with the use of effective tools if the problem has to be dealt with.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher

Image Source: Sustainable sanitation Alliance Secretariat

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