Author: Suchi Gaur, October 9 2015 - I had the opportunity to attend the launch of the Immunization initiative titled "Mission Indradhanush" of the Government of India. With the objective that every child gets immunized for seven (7) vaccine preventable diseases, the Programme is an addition to the Routine Immunization initiative that is already running in the country. And while I sat there understanding the whole project with its tools of communication used across the country, I couldn't stop myself from going back to where the development communication approach has failed the most, lack of behaviour changing techniques. Every year government schemes and programmes allocate a major chunk of the budget on the IEC (Information, Education and Communication) activities. A result of such a huge expenditure is a bunch of posters and content heavy hoardings in literacy deprived rural settings of India along with a few Mass Media oriented advertisements over radio and TV.

Can Behavior Change Communication and community communication set examples for better impact of government programmes?

A walk down a District Hospital and discussion with the local patients over the communication and information tools regarding health schemes is an easy answer to our question over the impact of the money spent over communicating information to the communities. While development initiatives by government and agencies are geared towards realizing the ultimate goals of Human Development, human behavior is complex and therefore behavior change needs a greater emphasis on social groups and contextual factors. While we aim at informing the communities, success of schemes on health, education, social indicators amongst other, to fulfill larger goals of socio-economic development need much more than mere information dissemination. They need behavior change at local socio-cultural level.

India still deals with the issue of open defecation with reports suggesting the poop baggage of India being the highest of the world. This has resulted in high cases of diarrhea and other diseases, with oral re-hydration as the treatment suggested along with being an environment hazard. In order to reduce cases, what is required is promotion of hygiene and sanitation practices that is use of toilets, no open defecation and washing hands with soap after defecation. But, why do so many people still not wash their hands with soap after defecation when IEC campaigns have been emphasizing the link between, water, sanitation, hygiene and health? What are the socio-cultural and economic factors supporting or blocking social and behaviour changes in the areas of sanitation and hygiene?

The research for designing strategic communication for development has indicated that traditionally, open defecation has had social acceptance in India as in many other developing countries.& Many households and communities consider toilets unclean. The availability of open fields in rural areas supports the continuation of such practices. Challenge of selling "sanitation" to large number of illiterate population groups is harder than to those with some level of education. Rising literacy and exposure have significantly helped change such attitudes. Access to a toilet does not always translate into usage or maintenance of toilets. Gender and caste dimension affect adoption. These dimensions are often overlooked while planning interventions.

With this input, a variety of strategies mixing community mobilization, social pressure and catchy slogans have been tried by different states to get communities to switch from open defecation to using toilets with varying degrees of success. In Maharashtra an alternate strategy seemed to have worked. The starting point of the campaign was convincing the village leaders such as Sarpanch, GP [gram panchayat] members, ex-members, and the gram sevak to build toilets in their own houses. That inspired many villagers. Group meetings, door-to-door contact, and gram sabhas yielded good results. So, what a number of IEC cannot achieve is the pressure to change behavior though they are vital in generating awareness about the link between poor sanitation and health risks, but awareness does not always lead to behaviour change. Often to see a change in one group's behavior, we might have to focus efforts on another audience or institutions. Thus, implementing demand driven approach will need government functionaries to have the attitude and skills to undertake a community-demand approach to create demand.

Participatory two-way communication is still not widely adopted and in most cases remains something to aspire to, rather than something to apply on a regular basis.

Interestingly, alternative media through people's participation comes as a culturally, economically, regionally and technologically more personal form of tool. The right and opportunity people have to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and creating opportunities for sharing knowledge and skills. In this regards, community media like Radio, Video, and Theater help in shaping content which is localized and targets at solving local issues, providing people with a voice to share their opinions. Radio Stations like Radio Mewat in Haryana and Radio Active in Bangalore have worked to change behaviours and practices in sanitation and garbage disposal. 

Community Media mechanisms not only help promote the schemes and programmes more efficiently but also provide the communities a channel for empowerment and promoting sustainable behavior change.

With central idea of Community media being handing over the power to create information to the communities, the involvement can pave way for faster implementation of schemes, encouraging behavior change. Maybe it is time the government innovates with the IEC expenditure and direct that money towards more innovative tools of community communications on an agenda basis. Communication for development is an essential tool for meeting today's most pressing development challenges and it should be more fully integrated into development policy and practices.

With respect to Mission Indradhanush, wonders can be done if local community media takes over regional village specific communication in culturally relevant regional language based forms.

This blog was featured on the author's Linkedin page.