The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is the Indian government’s largest sanitation program to date with a projected cost of $28 billion. By most accounts Swachh Bharat has had a major impact on sanitation in India. Beyond its impact, the program is noteworthy for its size and the speed at which it grew. A team of researchers at Penn’s Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics, led by Cristina Bicchieri, investigated the role of trendsetters and change agents in the campaign’s growth. With the use of qualitative interviews, they point to several personal, social and organizational factors that have supported its growth.

The co-authors of this article include Bicchieri, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics; Peter McNally, managing director; Sakshi Ghai, a visiting scholar; and Raj Patel, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn.

India has been embroiled in a hard-fought war against open defecation for decades. As recently as 2015, 500 million Indians were still engaging in the practice of open defecation, which constituted the world’s majority. Government administrations since the 1980s have repeatedly committed billions of dollars to the elimination of open defecation, yet it has stubbornly persisted. In October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his own sanitation campaign, the Swachh Bharat Mission (or Clean India Mission), with the ambitious goal of making India open defecation-free (ODF) by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday on October 2, 2019 — then only five years away. That was an audacious goal for a country that was known as “the kingdom of open defecation.”

To even have a chance of achieving this goal, the program needed to quickly mobilize massive resources and a significant number of change agents. These challenges were compounded by the fact that India is a democracy with a decentralized federal structure and a heterogeneous population — the central government could not simply mandate state governments and independent organizations to commit to the program. The amount of cooperation required between the various individuals, organizations and institutions was extensive. Further, providing millions of people with a toilet was just the infrastructural part of the solution. But moving millions of Indians to consistently use the toilets presented a surprisingly complex behavioral challenge. Perhaps, this is why some describe the Swachh Bharat Mission is the largest behavior-change campaign in history. Indeed, many citizens and institutions joined forces in its support, and it seemed to turn into a “Jan Andolan” or a people’s movement.

According to the Government of India, Swachh Bharat is on track to achieve its goals. Official statistics from the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation claim that there have been over 100,000,000 household toilets built since October 2, 2014, resulting in an increase in reported rural toilet coverage from around 38% in 2014 to over 90% in 2019 at a projected cost of around $30 billion dollars. In addition to these reports, there is other ongoing research examining the impact of this program.

Targeting Trendsetters

What accounted for the speed at which this campaign grew? We believe that certain individuals — trendsetters — were an essential ingredient in understanding the campaign’s growth. Trendsetters are individuals who are among the first to break away from well-established practices, especially since they must be willing to publicly deviate from standard practices in order to influence others to adopt new practices. But why might “trendsetters” be at play here?

In August and September of 2019, we, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Social Norms Group (PennSoNG), analyzed interview data from 20 key players to understand their role in the Clean India movement. Through a semi-structured qualitative study, we selected individuals with a range of decision-making power, degrees of influence, networks and involvement in the Swacch Bharat initiative. The respondents ranged from official and non-official government personnel to grassroots volunteers and everything in between. Individuals were chosen who were likely to have a high degree of involvement or impact on sanitation in India. To assess many different perspectives on the program’s growth, we selected individuals who were involved in diverse ways. For each individual, we put forward a battery of interview questions to better learn the nature of their involvement, whether they exhibited the characteristics of an effective trendsetter (both in terms of dispositional qualities and behavioral strategies) as well as the broader structure in which they were embedded.

“[The] central government could not simply mandate state governments and independent organizations to commit to the program. The amount of cooperation required between the various individuals, organizations and institutions was extensive.”

Our interviewees had diverse backgrounds and included senior and junior government officials, Bollywood celebrities, industrialists, spiritual leaders, international development partners, grassroots leaders, villager motivators, NGO workers, and journalists to learn about their unique actions and motivations. This research found that high-impact individuals who facilitated the growth of the mission exhibited the characteristics of trendsetters.

To understand the iterative process of influencing behavior change, we focused on the specific individuals who are willing to move and act first. The average politician may not want to prioritize sanitation over other pressing social issues, especially if, for example, building roads will bring more votes than building toilets. A villager may know that their whole community would be better off if everyone owned and used toilets (a so-called “collective action problem”), but they may not want to personally incur the costs of trying to get their neighbors to change their ways — especially in a country where norms of purity can cast the handling of or proximity to feces as shameful. There is much to be learned from understanding the individuals who crossed over these deeply entrenched social barriers, what their position in a social network is and how they could act in a way that made a difference.

In our study of trendsetters in the Swachh Bharat Mission, we examine three key determinants to being successful trendsetters: agential, interpersonal and structural. Agential determinants are associated with the psychological states and personal attitudes specific to individual trendsetters. Interpersonal determinants pertain to how trendsetters influence the growth of the campaign and are, in turn, influenced by previous agents of change. Finally, the kind of change sought by the Swachh Bharat Mission required a high degree of coordination among agents and institutions. Structural determinants are associated with the institutional and contextual features that allow coordination to take place and flexibility to innovate.

Agential Determinants

We found that interviewees consistently exhibited psychological traits characteristic of trendsetters. According to Bicchieri’s research, trendsetters typically have a relatively high tolerance for risk (low risk aversion), are confident that their actions will in fact lead to successful outcomes (high perceived self-efficacy), are independent yet personable (high reflective autonomy), and they care deeply about the harms poor sanitary practices inflict on their communities.

As a start, we would expect trendsetters to have low risk aversion because deviating from well-established practices in a public way is inherently risky. Several interviewees understood assuming these risks as simply part and parcel of attempting to effect behavioral change at scale. For example the Cabinet Secretary of India, P.K. Sinha said, “Many efforts will not succeed but risks make all the difference. You have to take high risks: The higher the risks the higher the reward.” A former district magistrate stated explicitly that he took on professional risks that came naturally with being “one of the pioneers of the movement.”

While interviewees were generally cognizant of these risks, they remained confident that their actions would bring about their desired consequences. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar spoke about a film about toilets (Toilet, ek Prem Kahani) that stalled for years because no one “wanted to touch it,” nobody wants to see a film called Toilet … [people] make films to earn money.” The general perception was that a film on open defecation could not be commercially viable, and thus ran the risk of flopping at the box office. For Kumar, however, such considerations were outweighed by the need to draw attention to the public health concerns posed by open defecation: “This is very essential for [India] … cleanliness [is] where we have always been behind.”

Further, interviewees generally exhibited high perceived self-efficacy, which is the confidence one has in one’s capacity to engage in actions to produce specific outcomes. High perceived self-efficacy implies that individuals believe in their capacity to control, or have a significant influence over, their social environment through their actions and behaviors. Without sufficiently high perceived self-efficacy, one may not be willing to engage in a new behavior out of fear of failure. For example, Rina Ray, Secretary of the Department of School Education and Literacy, noted that she had reached her position “without any godfather, godmother, or lobby … I only have my work.” She went on to reflect on the impact of her work through Swachh Bharat: “[I] know I have changed millions of lives … [Through] Swachh Bharat, we are making change as we sit, we are making history.”

Faith leader Chidanand Saraswatiji, president of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, was similarly confident in his ability to bring about change: “Start from your street, go to the city, and to the nation, and it can change … today in the 21st Century, any magic can happen, but magic is togetherness…. Let us be together, take this challenge, and bring the change. And Mahatma Gandhi said, if you want to see the change, [be] the change…. ODF is taking place.”

“[Our] research found that high-impact individuals who facilitated the growth of the mission exhibited the characteristics of trendsetters.

In addition to high risk tolerance and high perceived self-efficacy, we expect trendsetters to exhibit a degree of independence from the pressures to conform to their community’s behaviours. They perceive themselves to be meaningfully acting out of their own volition, but nonetheless care about how their actions impact others. Thus, trendsetters will tend to score high on traits associated with a kind of autonomy indicated by acting with a sense of choice and the ability to self-govern.

One interviewee, a sarpanch (an elected village leader), described the difficulties of planning and organizing various social programs in the face of deep local resistance in her village, but yet she carried on with their work because she believed in the mission. A few other interviewees gave us instances where they pursued an independent path of action that diverged from standard or prescribed government practices. They did so because they thought independent action would yield optimal results, even if it carried professional risks.

Our interviewees were also consistently committed and passionate to improve sanitation. They were acutely aware of the different positive and negative externalities of sanitation and its impact on development. Secretary Iyer adds that “I think that sanitation straddles both social and infrastructure…. Sanitation addresses many issues. Big economic impact, social impact, health impact, environmental impact…. So I think for all these reasons sanitation has become very very important.”

Some participants also talked about sharing the responsibility and feeling shame or embarrassment due to lack of proper sanitation. They emphasized that the right to access proper sanitation for vulnerable populations — women and children as a fundamental human right. They wanted to keep this narrative front and center and work on promoting women’s dignity and safety. Madhu Krishna from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said, “As a woman, it seemed to me such a basic, fundamental right, which affected women exponentially more than it does men…. And how much trauma it is for me that I can constantly relate to … if I don’t have a safe sanitation place…. Just imagine the lives of women who don’t actually have that every day. I would experience it once a month or something, when I went out into the fields or into villages, but think about having to do that every single day of your life.”

Interpersonal Determinants

In our research, we sought to examine the degree to which respondents intentionally tried to influence others and also the degree to which they themselves were motivated by specific others. In line with the idea of a “cascade of influence” starting at the top, we found that many interviewees described themselves as being motivated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Parameswaran Iyer, the Secretary of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti. These two individuals (especially the prime minister) repeatedly stood out as perceived sources of influence for many of our interviewees.

Many of the interviewees we spoke to employed a diverse set of tactics to motivate others to work towards improving sanitation in India. These tactics included empowering women’s voices, messaging in the media, financial incentives, data-based reasoning, and other behavior-change techniques. A religious leader who launched a faith-based sanitation organization described his efforts to bring attention to sanitation issues: “So in that way, where there is a small festival or big festival, or small congregation big congregation, everyday we need constant reminding, constant reminders … talking to the local people, talking to the faith leaders … understanding the problems of sanitation is very different … bringing all of them together, I think making a big difference, and I can see the change, the change is amazing.”

Sometimes just being seen engaging in a particular activity was enough to inspire others to get involved in SBM activities. Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, for example, encouraged some of his fans to clean Vervosa Beach every week: “When I went down [to Vervosa Beach] personally, there’s a whole fan following that had just on its own decided to do this, because they saw me doing it … I don’t tell them, I’ve never told them go and clean up the beach. They’re just doing it on their own just because they’ve seen me doing it.”

“Sometimes just being seen engaging in a particular activity was enough to inspire others to get involved in SBM activities.”

It was not just Bollywood Stars who inspired this kind of energy. Chandrakant Kulkarni, a retired teacher and “SBM Champion,” told us about when he began cleaning a local river: “Every Sunday we would go to the river and work … many people would approach me and ask me to stand and watch while they did all the work as they got motivation from me. I have a little problem in my spine, so I cannot bend and work for a long time … They would tell me to stand and watch, and would say that your presence is enough for motivating us to clean.”

Structural Determinants

Success depends on the coordination and cooperation of many institutional and individual parties. An important enabler of coordination is the perception that there is open and strong institutional support. For example, Nicolas Osbert, Head of UNICEF India’s WASH Programming, told us that while sanitation issues are generally not prioritized in other parts of the world, “I could see that in India, thanks to the leadership that really came from the top, prime minister level, there was a strong vibe to make a difference.” This clear support from the prime minister became a coordination enhancer.

It was also very important to obtain coordination among various actors and institutions involved in the Swachh Bharat Mission. Secretary Iyer stated that vertical coordination between various actors was an explicit strategy to generate and sustain enthusiasm for the program: “[W]e operated what in UP we call this whole formula of PM, CM, DM, VM. Prime Minister, Chief Minister, District Magistrate and the Village Motivator…. I was functioning along with my team like a traveling salesman…. I had to go out and market sanitation and put it on the top of everyone’s agenda…. You’ve got to get the grassroot people … the NGOs, the CBOs (Community-based Organizations) out, and most of all these village motivators who are from the community.”

Our interviewees were acutely aware of the critical information flow challenges that must be overcome to successfully coordinate across such a diverse range of individuals and organizations involved in SBM. Many of them were personally involved in improving information flows between key actors. For example, Naina Lal Kidwai, chair of the India Sanitation Coalition, was acutely aware of the costs of these information gaps: “[The] issue was there wasn’t enough sharing of information. [Everybody] who was going there appeared to be reinventing the wheel … whatever was happening was not enough in terms of sharing of data, information, working together, and collaboration.” One successful approach overcoming these information silos, Kidwai recalled, was to simply incentivize information sharing through an awards system: “Sometimes people don’t share, sometimes people don’t share enough form that you can use it. We instituted awards which help us because for every category of award, [there are] fifty people that apply, [and so] there are many best practices.” These best practices are then placed on the public India Sanitation Coalition website.

In addition to achieving coordination, securing cooperation amongst the diversity of players involved in SBM is crucial for such a large scale behavior change. We found that many interviewees were personally involved in facilitating cooperation between individuals as part of their work. For example, Radharani Mitra, National Creative Director of BBC Media Action, reflected on the motivation behind a 2015 conference on sanitation called Needle, “where we had made it possible for people from different walks of life … from academia, advertising, marketing development, social commentators, anthropologists, to come together to shine the searchlight on social and behavior change communication….” The conference, co-organized with the World Bank, explicitly invited a diverse set of individuals: “[We] wanted to put together different types of people to explore the … the significance of social and behavior change communication in order to move the ‘Needle.’”

Facilitating cooperation was not only restricted to international organizations such as the BBC or the World Bank. Sunita Devi, a “rani mistri” (female mason) who has trained hundreds of other female masons in toilet construction, told us she consciously wanted to bring women to the forefront of the Swachh Bharat Mission’s efforts: “I made a plan [as to] which woman can do what … so like this I got them to work. [For] women, we got a platform to help women and bring them together and get [the] job done.”

The ability to facilitate the smooth transfer of information as well as bring key individuals together aligns with our theoretical understanding of trendsetters as individuals who exhibit high reflective autonomy. These are individuals who tend to be extroverted and personable which in turn means they tend to be centrally located in social networks. It is precisely individuals with these psychological traits who should be particularly adept at bringing people together or bridging information gaps. They are, in a sense, better connected to perform these tasks.

“Organizations should empower potential first movers with autonomy and flexibility to act and provide them with faith that their efforts will have the necessary support.”

Finally, cooperation was secured by giving individuals latitude with respect to their specific local programming. For example, one government employee viewed the unique flexibility given to administrators under the program as the freedom to innovate: “Luckily, the program was very flexible. The states and the districts and all the administrators in the hierarchy were given enough flexibility in the scheme, to implement or innovate or intervene in a customized manner, as per the requirements of the field.”

This latitude, in addition with the general atmosphere of support from high up, fostered a spirit of positive competitiveness and spurred further innovation. The employee continued: “On the government-level, the priority was set up very high for this scheme. We got traction from the District Magistrate and the district teams. Everybody was motivated because of that. Everybody was pushing each other….” People wanted to show: “We are coming up with this intervention.”

Trendsetters and Social Change

Our research provides a unique glimpse of the role that trendsetters can play in enacting broad social change. Other governments that seek to replicate the work of the Swachh Bharat Mission should be alert to the factors that we observed at play in our research. Grand goals, such as working to make India open defecation-free, would be challenging to pull off without well-coordinated support from high impact individuals in multiple different sectors as well as low-level coordination in villages and districts. In cases where behavior change may require trendsetters (e.g., in cases where a self-sustaining behavior is deeply entrenched and change needs to be collective), an organization that seeks to encourage large scale shifts in behavior should be thoughtful in choosing who to encourage to deviate first. Organizations should empower potential first movers with autonomy and flexibility to act and provide them with faith that their efforts will have the necessary support. Moreover, they should initially empower those who are passionate about the new behavior, are capable of motivating others, and have a history of willingness to take risks to achieve their goals.

Beyond identifying players who have a high potential to act as trendsetters, a well-designed program should foster an institutional environment in which change agents are most likely to thrive. The risks of changing behaviors should be actively diminished, so more risk-averse individuals will be willing to act. Behavior change communication offer many tools to motivate target individuals to endorse new, more positive behaviors. Coordination among organizations should be actively facilitated, and clear means of communications should be made available.


We must acknowledge that these interviews were qualitative in nature. A definitive view of the role of trendsetters in the Swachh Bharat Mission and its impact on sanitation in India would require quantitative studies and network analyses. However, the program’s growth has been impressive. This program is also unique in many respects, and other large-scale behavior change efforts may face different challenges. Even if improving sanitation may not have been an initially flashy goal, it was difficult to criticize, and it enjoyed some degree of multi-partisan support. As governments and other large organizations appreciate the role of behavioral forces in enacting social change, they may gain critical insights from the methods of the Swachh Bharat Mission, especially the tools that were adopted to achieve meaningful coordination and cooperation. Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood actor and “ambassador” for the Swachh Bharat Mission, reflected on these lessons at the end of our interview: “Have you ever heard before somebody from UPenn wanting to come and talk about Swachh Bharat in India? …That’s the credential — the biggest credential.”

A note from the authors: We are grateful to UNICEF India for their generous funding as well as their staff (especially Nicolas Osbert and Koushiki Banerjee) for providing interview support and thoughtful intellectual contributions. We deeply appreciate Dr. Pramath Sinha who generously contributed his time and expertise to this project. We also wish to thank Jinyi Kuang, particularly for her support during the initial stages of the project and IRB processes, and Sarah Girard and Arjun Khandelwal for their assistance with analysis. Finally, we would like to thank the participants themselves for their time.

Image: Children participating in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan at the Public Information Campaign, Tuidam Village, in Mamit District, Mizoram on October 30, 2014. (Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India)