What are the barriers in accessing safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services in challenging circumstances? This question was at the heart of Santwana Sneha’s recent research project. Her immersive study in 8 villages of two Indian states, Maharashtra and Bihar, looked at how integrated interventions can be more inclusive and resilient, how we can have a more nuanced understanding of intersectionality and how different groups are impacted. It was conducted together with the FINISH Society teams and the Institute of Development Studies. We talked with Sneha about her experience and her findings.

Sneha, please tell us briefly what your research was all about and what the motivation behind starting this immersive research project was?

The right to access safe water and sanitation is a fundamental right that is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In India, the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM) has made significant progress in improving access to toilets in rural areas, with high levels of commitment and investment from the government at all levels. However, challenges remain, among them the absence of water, entrenched attitudes and beliefs, tough physical environments, extreme climate events, and extreme poverty.

Focus group discussion in Darbhanga, Bihar

To achieve the goals of SDG 6, we also first and foremost need to understand and eliminate discrimination, which is no easy task. It was clear to us from the beginning that the barriers to safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services for everyone are complex and multifaceted, and cannot be fully understood through traditional research methods.

So you decided to use immersive research methods instead ?

Yes, because immersion research allows researchers to experience firsthand the daily lives, experiences, and challenges faced by individuals in a particular context. By immersing in the selected communities, our aim was to gain valuable insights into the socio-cultural, economic, and environmental factors that affect people’s behavior and choices around WASH services. So, we decided to set up an immersive research project  in two districts of India Nandurbar in Maharashtra and Darbhanga in Bihar, in collaboration with the Sanitation Learning Hub (SLH).

What were some of the main findings of your research ?

The immersive research clearly revealed that while there had been an increase in toilet coverage after the launch of the SBM, we are still a far cry from universal access and use of toilets. People affected by poverty and social marginalisation remain excluded from accessing these services. Caste-based inequality is prevalent, and waste management and awareness on this issue were found to be in a dismal state across the villages. Corruption, gender norms, poor livelihood opportunities leading to extreme poverty, migration, and other factors impact the access and distribution of resources, including WASH services. It is also important to remember that deep-rooted attitudes, beliefs, and social norms still dictate WASH behavior, and changing behavior takes time. Women and girls were more likely to use the built toilets, which reflects safety and privacy concerns. 

Grey and black water flows directly into the waterway, Nandurbar

One of your findings was also that people often prefer open defecation, even though they have toilets in their homes. How do you explain that?

Some social norms still drive open defecation (OD) behaviour. One of them is treating OD as a traditional practice, something that their ancestors already did. I have also met several people who felt that open defecation requires less water than using a toilet at home. This is especially relevant for villages that face severe water scarcity.  In general, toilet use and maintenance is way behind in the list of priorities of people. Another deep rooted perception amongst non-users is anxiety of pit filling, if everyone regularly uses the toilets. Emptying pits can of course be costly and many households try to avoid that cost. What I also observed was that a great number of toilets were defunct or incomplete. People expect the government to step in and make the needed repairs, which in practice is not happening. And community toilets are either not available or defunct due to the absence of operations and maintenance systems. So, in these contexts, open defecation seems a preferred option.

In the state of Bihar, these challenges are compounded by frequent flooding. Can you tell us a bit more about what you observed in the villages there?

In some areas of Bihar, toilets and homes get flooded for around 3-4 months during the year. Pits collapse, water bodies get contaminated, people defecate in the open, sometimes in the flooded areas. Even worse, once the water recedes, the pits are cleaned by private tank emptiers who, instead of safely disposing of the fecal sludge, just dump the human waste in the village ponds, in the open. Menstrual hygiene management is also difficult during floods, there is no place to dispose of sanitary pads and menstrual products end up in waterways. This is a very challenging context.

What do you think needs to change and how do we induce that change?

One of the key messages, I think, is that water resource management is more than just ensuring access to clean water; it must encompass managing wastewater and human waste. First of all, we need to increase knowledge and awareness about safely-managed and climate-resilient sanitation systems and make treatment of waste water a priority. From a technical point of view, this can be achieved by strengthening decentralised and low-cost water treatment and reuse systems. We also need more retrofitting and maintenance services to increase toilet usage and when retrofitting systems, we need to make the WASH facilities flood-resilient. And we also need adequate and functional hand washing facilities with soap, which are for instance missing in most schools and Anganwadi centers. 

But most crucially, we need to address the inequalities in access to safe sanitation. Older people, people with disabilities, migrant workers, people facing caste-based exclusion are the ones who suffer most from unsafe water and sanitation. We need to design systems that are inclusive, appropriate and sustainable. And last, but not least, to foster change, we need to first understand the enablers that drive or hinder investment in safely managed WASH, what are the social norms, what are the aspirations and the challenges in each community – these nuances must be addressed when developing program designs and during implementation.

How does your research link to the work FINISH is doing?

Immersion research provides valuable insights into the lived realities of communities that lack access to safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. Through immersion research, FINISH can better understand the needs and aspirations of these communities, and tailor their interventions and programs accordingly. This approach can help ensure that their initiatives are relevant and effective, and that they are truly meeting the needs of the communities they serve. 


You can hear more about Santwana Sneha’s research at All Systems Connect. Sneha will share the fascinating insights she gained during her immersive study in the session:

W3.6 Poo is water resource management too, Wednesday 3 May, 15.30am, Oceania Foyer, World Forum

Also find FINISH Mondial’s full programme at All Systems Connect here.


Santwana Sneha is the Head of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning at FINISH Society. She also serves in the FINISH Society Board and is part of the Gender and Social Inclusion and the Monitoring and Evaluation working groups of FINISH Mondial. She is a Researcher, Practitioner & Activist for Safe Environment, Women Empowerment & Sustainable Development. 

Get in touch at: Santwana.sneha2007@gmail.com



Cover photo: Participatory activity with youth on the topic of sanitation in Nandurbar

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