Category: Behavioural economics

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was initiated in 2014 to achieve universal sanitation coverage. The cleanliness drive aimed to make citizens health-conscious by providing financial incentives for solid/liquid waste management (SLWM), toilet construction, technical assistance, and capacity building (Aijaz, 2017).

The Swachh Bharat Mission has successfully executed its target of toilet construction with about 99% of Indian cities declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) (Jadhav, 2021). However, toilet usage is still reported to be low. There are drawbacks to the policy that can only be mitigated when citizens and the government work in collaboration and co-design the policy. Behavioural interventions can come in handy to bring about this transformational shift. According to Sharma, by 2021 a very small percentage (about 3%) of the SBM Budget is allocated to behavioural change. 

The potential solution area to improve the policy’s adoption is to reframe the policy for better outcomes using the principles of behavioural science.

Administrative Problems

Apart from the behavioural challenges mentioned above, there are certain administrative issues in the implementation of the program. It is observed that toilets are not properly constructed, either they are left halfway or constructed at far-off places and not in close vicinity creating challenges, specifically for women. Problems concerned with lack of adequate water supply, small and dingy toilets, also hinders the use of the toilet. Many areas even struggle to maintain the Open Defecation Free (ODF) status owing to seasonal and technological challenges (Sharma, 2021). 

To address these challenges, consistent physical availability of functional toilets must be a critical first step to induce latrine-use habits. This can be done by ensuring that toilets are constructed in social contexts beyond the homes such as in schools, hospitals, market places, thereby maximizing the physical availability of enabling infrastructure. It is equally important to map the existing OD locations and reduce the physical availability by repurposing common OD sites for alternate use. 

By making the existing toilet infrastructure easily accessible and user-friendly and by reducing the availability of the products/infrastructure supporting OD, we can correct the barriers hindering toilet usage.

Challenges in the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)  

India, with its vast and diverse population, experiences a number of challenges in getting people to use toilets and stop defecating in open spaces. Some of these challenges are listed below: 

  • Status Quo Bias – 100% toilet coverage yet low toilet usage 

According to the IHHL (Individual Household Latrine), there has been an overall 100% household toilet coverage in India, as of 2nd October 2019 (Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), n.d.). However, the policymakers underestimated the amount of time it would take to bring in desired behavioural change among the people who largely defecate in the open. 

People have a status quo bias wherein due to the preference for the current state of affairs, individuals do not wish to exercise an active choice but simply stick to the age-old practices and therefore, individuals in India continue to defecate in the open. In the rural areas of 5 northern Indian states, Coffey et al. (2014) found that 21% of individuals continue to defecate in the open, despite owning a latrine. In rural Tamil Nadu, a study by Yogananth & Bhatnagar (2018) reported that 54% of respondents defecated in the open despite having a household latrine.

Individuals are also driven by present bias wherein the inclination towards a smaller present reward (gains from open defecation) dominates larger later reward (gains from toilet usage). This occurs due to a lack of knowledge about the future benefits of using toilets. 

  • Limited awareness:

Even in places where toilets are functioning, citizens lack awareness in terms of the importance of sanitation and hygiene. Construction of toilets is not enough, the government should stress on effective communication to induce behavioural changes as well as focus on the differential usage and access to these facilities (Sharma, 2021).


It can be noticed from the above discussion that individuals often stick to what is the default setting due to limited cognitive abilities and biased perceptions. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out several biases and heuristics that limit our ability to make the best decisions for ourselves and others. Such decisions not only impact us but also those around us, leading to negative externalities. It is the need of the hour to change the behaviour of individuals through appropriate interventions to eliminate the negative outcomes. These interventions, by enabling reflective thinking, can nudge people to start using toilets and bring in desired changes.

Using the learning from behavioural science, some policy recommendations can be enacted for the effective implementation of SBM:

  1. Behavioural changes and nudges would be able to facilitate a shift that would build upon existing social norm bias and induce citizens to make rational choices. To encourage citizens to stop defecating in the open, individuals can be informed of how their neighbours are making the best use of toilets. Using messages such as ‘9 out of 10 households in your vicinity use toilets ’, ‘no toilet, no bride’ can induce people to positively change their behaviour.
  2. Linking the existing cues with desired changes can yield effective results. Open defecation (OD) is a part of the morning routine and ‘piggybacks’ on daily rituals of a time to walk and socialize. Measures can be taken to enable latrine use to piggyback on these established, daily behaviours. For example, shaded areas near community toilets can be constructed to provide space to socialize.
  3. Effective monitoring, surveillance, regular reminders, and ground-level checks can help in examining the use of toilets. Incentivization can be another measure to encourage people to make the best use of toilets. Households making use of toilets can be awarded as the “Best Household” and can be given badges as a token of appreciation for supporting the cause. This could be publicly visible and generate a badge effect, motivating others to participate in the drive. Moreover, techniques like campaigning, social messaging, priming, can be used to bring desired behavioural change.


Experiments around the world have shown how behavioural principles can be used to design policies that address development and policy challenges. Good data and good analysis are thus very essential for being informed about issues and making good policy recommendations. Open Defecation (OD) is a deep-rooted socio-cultural concern. Thus, without intervention in behaviour, the use of toilets will not increase even where latrines are available. To transform India into a truly ODF society, it will call for significant interventions to design latrines amenable to sustained daily use and to induce significant behavioural change.

‘Open defecation is a battle with the mind and hence must be won mindfully’


 About Us | Swachh Bharat Mission—Gramin, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2021, from

Aijaz, R. (2017, July 19). Swachh Bharat Mission: Achievements and challenges. ORF.

Coffey, D., Gupta, A., Hathi, P., Khurana, N., Spears, D., Srivastav, N., & Vyas, S. (2014). Revealed Preference for Open Defecation. 38, 13.

Jadhav, R. (2021, January 28). Flush with success, Swachh Bharat scheme on path to sustainability.

Kahneman, D. (2003). Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics. The American Economic Review, 93(5), 1449–1475.

Sharma, A. (2021, October 28). Here’s Why India Is Struggling to Be Truly Open Defecation Free. The Wire.

The  Behavioural  Insights  Team  (2015),  ‘ FAST:  Four  simple  ways  to  apply  behavioural  insights ’, Publication-EAST_FA_WEB.pdf

Yogananth, N., & Bhatnagar, T. (2018). Prevalence of open defecation among households with toilets and associated factors in rural south India: An analytical cross-sectional study. Transactions of The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 112(7), 349–360.

In one of the most significant behavioural changes in modern times, the COVID-19 experience brought several challenges to the field of behavioural economics. From the uneasy debate of behavioural fatigue to creating successful norms for restricting the spread of the virus. However, practitioners have a long way to go vis-a-vis making the field more robust in its understanding and in its attempts to contribute effectively to policy making.

Over the years, behavioural economists have caught many governments’ attention in developing behavioural change frameworks to influence citizen behaviour. It started with the UK and USA governments in the 2010s, which established their respective nudge units to help in policy making. The Indian government has also seen some of the benefits in recent years and have started working with behavioural units in the country to deliver some of their services. One of the main reasons that this science has interested governments is the low-cost nature of nudges. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, governments rushed to develop policies with some of their behavioural experts, altering citizen behaviour to restrict communicability. This was the time to test behavioural economics’ competency and see whether it can be a potent tool in policy making as argued by its supporters for many years. 

Governments worldwide adopted varied restrictions. Where the U.K. was taking a more lax response, India adopted one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. In the former, a controversy started when some experts recommended herd immunity based on almost 70% of the population getting affected by the virus. This was based on and complemented by some controversial remarks by behavioural experts, who used “behavioural fatigue” as a reason not to enforce a lockdown early as people will get fed up with it. Immediately, almost 600 behavioural economists wrote a letter questioning the evidence of the behavioural fatigue argument. In the end, the U.K. government enforced a lockdown. 

The episode of “behavioural fatigue” brought controversy to the field, which has frequently been looked at as over-generalising and over-claiming and often faced replication problems. This can be attributed to a false perception about what behavioural economics is and what it offers to public policy. 

Behavioural Economics is the study of humans, organisations, and governments’ behaviour employing disciplines of psychology and economics. It critiques the dominant position of the rational model of the economic agent. Even though the field has been around for decades, it was made popular with the application of “Nudge” — a cost-effective tool to modify human behaviour. 

During COVID-19, various countries adopted nudges in their policy decisions. One of the widely used ones was the 2m distancing signs in public spaces that visually prompts citizens to distance themselves and avoid overcrowding. Another was focusing on creating a clear message to the public on how to behave during a pandemic. As overload of information could be confusing, a salient messaging like ‘Stay Home; Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ helped the public adhere to a particular behaviour. But the most popular was singing the Happy Birthday song for the recommended 20 seconds hand wash, which gave people a reference point. The development of these nudges was by identifying the heuristics and traits of human behaviour. 

Some of these nudges were fruitful in the pandemic as many people changed their behaviour which helped restrict the spread of the virus. However, many of them failed in different environments — a point on how it is difficult to generalise nudges. Therefore, a nudge’s efficacy should be tested extensively across different contexts to make them robust. But often, we fail to focus on the testing part and accept a general theory of nudges, which leads to unintended consequences. For example, the famous nudge discussed by Richard Thaler of auto-enrolment savings program, which leads to higher savings for people, is discussed as a general way to use nudges. In many areas, it has led to that conclusion. However, when a set of US Army civilians were auto-enrolled for a similar savings plan, the research found that it left people with higher mortgage and car debt, and the long-term savings result was inconclusive. 

Nudge as a tool is one part of behavioural economics; however, it has become synonymous with it, leading to problems of misinterpretation. Many behavioural economists argue that sometimes nudges or behavioural intervention are not the best fixes for behavioural problems. This is attuned with the lockdown during the pandemic where governments had to resort to strict intervention due to difficulty in changing human behaviour through nudges. 

Nevertheless, behavioural economics is an efficient tool when assessing behavioural changes in people. For instance, with a new set of social norms and stigma during lockdown, non-compliant individuals could be behaviourally intervened by making these new norms salient. Another point is to understand the pandemic fatigue through evidence and develop behavioural solutions that are contextualised. But a big problem faced by governments is the infodemic of misinformation with the pandemic, particularly by the anti-vaccination movement which can jeopardise the effort to combat the virus. This is the next challenge for behavioural economists, to understand anti-vaxxers’ behaviour and try to modify it. Other challenges lie in making citizens comply with the vaccination drives and continue to adhere to safety guidelines. 

The experience of COVID-19 has been a testing ground for the theories of behavioural economics. Some of them have responded well when it comes to norms, slight behavioural changes, saliency, etc. However, other theories brought controversies like the untested evidence of behavioural fatigue. These limitations should be discussed more and referred to when designing behavioural interventions, particularly nudges, which might not always be the best response for behavioural problems. 

The future of behavioural economics lies in collaboration among diverse teams with local knowledge and a multidisciplinary approach to understanding behavioural problems and avoiding over-generalised theories. More importantly, there is a need for epistemic humility among behavioural economists to lead a more robust and evidence-based behavioural approach. 

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

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