Understanding the thinking behind IEC in large programs

Lessons from the Swachh Bharat Mission experience
4 Oct 2021
0 mins read
Pop culture icons like Gabbar Singh are painted on the walls of a toilet complex in New Delhi (Image: Project Raahat, Enactus)
Pop culture icons like Gabbar Singh are painted on the walls of a toilet complex in New Delhi (Image: Project Raahat, Enactus)

Our governing ministries in the Centre and in States plan several programs every year for the overall betterment of lives and livelihoods of the masses, and many of them require people to understand the programs and participate in them to their best of abilities. Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was one such program that was launched in 2014.

Often called India’s largest behaviour change program, SBM launched a countrywide campaign to encourage people to clean their surroundings and stop defecating in the open. In a country like India, where millions were born and have been raised in social and cultural setups that consider open defecation the best way to clear one’s bowels, the juggernaut of age-old behaviour needed a lot more than conventional communication to the masses.

Now other large scale programs in the water sector like Jal Jeevan Mission and Atal Bhujal Yojana are being rolled out, both of which requires people to understand the complex science behind water management and modify behaviours to optimize demand vis-a-vis supply, we felt the lessons from SBM could help these programs strategize their Information, Education, and Communication campaigns.

We interacted with Mr Akshay Rout, the former Director-General in SBM, to learn more about this and have tried to capture the same in this article.

Reminiscing about his early days of understanding human behaviour and communication principles, Mr Rout says “I have always loved engaging with people and interacting, listening to people has been the best way to understand their behaviours and relate to them. What I have understood is that the crux of communication is in listening more and seriously - because everyone wants to be heard.”

Mr Rout joined the Election Commission of India in 2009 and he shared how India’s recognition in the world stage was from its being the largest functioning democracy - before it became known for technological and economic advancements. Timely elections did happen but voter turnout was poor. There was a democracy-deficit as only half the people in electoral rolls voted.

With an intention to encourage more people to participate in elections, his team came up with a programme called Systematic Voters' Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP). Through this campaign, general and targeted communication ensured people felt proud of themselves when they voted and it became a fashionable trend for the youth. The change into the positive act of registration and voting was possible by combining information, motivation, finally facilitation.

“Access to the right information is all it takes sometimes,” recounts Mr Rout from his experience during the SVEEP campaign in Jharkhand. “Many people simply didn’t vote because they did not have a voter ID card and they were not aware they could use any other ID to vote.”

Drawing parallels to the water and sanitation sector, he says “here many might not have knowledge about the incentives, subsidies and there may not be the required clarity in processes. For instance, how can they enroll for a certain scheme, how long is the waiting period for money, how much do they have to invest, and who can help them navigate the formalities.”

Talking about human behaviour and linked economic principles, he says, “As human beings, we are all concerned with our individual self and private goods more than society and public goods. Sanitation is not congenital. Desirable behaviour is a public good but for an individual the priority for this would come much after the child’s marriage, purchasing furniture, jewellery, buying cattle etc. But the case is slightly different for water. While water is a common-pool resource, there is also an individual need attached to it as hunger and thirst are congenital. In sanitation, the first step was to generate demand through communication. It was to get people to construct the toilet in their mind first.”

“SBM experience has made us realize that in some situations, people do not like some messages being said out loud. At least that was the case with sanitation. But as the program started training local leaders, school children and even celebrities started talking about these issues, the perception and comfort around the messaging increased. Interpersonal communication through community resource persons (Swachhagrahis) was key to bringing this change on the ground. It was not just about changing behaviour but replacing an existing entrenched behaviour with a new one,” says Mr Rout.

Talking about the types of communication, he shares “the most powerful communicators and influencers are only effective when they do below the line communication. We saw movie actors and politicians pick up shovels and dig toilet pits. That was demonstration communication and it left powerful images in the minds of people. A lot of scientific analysis goes into understanding triggers - what moves people, what disgusts them, what encourages them to participate. What kind of communication will make it everyone’s business?”

Is this analysis of triggers a one-time thing? “No, as program milestones shift and from adoption, it moves towards sustainability - the triggers will have to be revisited as well.”

Following the resources invested in SBM and some promising results delivered by the program, it has also left behind material for future programs to use. Mr Rout shared that every large program can create templates that can be reused and provide guidance to others, especially with respect to IEC. But he emphasized the core idea behind reusable templates “Don’t translate but adapt. Build local context in.”

Concluding his conversation, Mr Rout pointed out some important areas that large programs should focus on for rolling out an IEC plan that works:

  • Stay with local art, creativity, and innovation in communication because they have a lot of power;
  • Analyse capacity gaps at all levels and plug them by providing more resources where needed;
  • Don’t encourage the “push and shove method” to meet targets as it might lead to unintended social consequences; and
  • Enable decentralization to the lowest possible level keeping cultural specificity in mind and capture the “spirit of local culture” with anthropological and sociological perspectives.

IEC resources of SBM are available here

SBM's Youtube channel is available here 




This article is based on an interaction with Mr Akshay Rout, who is an expert in mass media development and broadcast practices in India, and was formerly associated with SBM till 2019 as Director-General, Special Projects. He was also a Director-General in the Election Commission of India from 2009 to 2014. Views expressed are personal.

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