Poor Toilets Are Worse Than No Toilets

The government wants to make India open-defecation free. Building toilets is not enough.

First, the good news for India. Nationwide, under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), toilets have been constructed at a rapid pace. The Government of India reports that we have gone from a sanitation coverage of 39% in October 2014 to 98% at the end of 2018. Notwithstanding the quibble that ‘sanitation’ here refers to ‘toilets’, this is an impressive achievement. At this rate, the Modi government will achieve its declared goal of 100% sanitation coverage before October 2, 2019, the birth-date of Mahatma Gandhi, who was also a well-known champion of sanitation and hygiene.

Now, the bad news. As we enter 2019, toilet usage remains poor, and official data seems to be refusing to acknowledge this reality. Data on even construction of toilets seems flawed. Rural areas witnessed coercive tactics (often more sharply targeted at socially disadvantaged groups) in the government’s push for toilet construction. Moreover, the quality of toilets being constructed gives rise to the fear that ‘toilet usage’ will fall, as aspects such as fecal waste management are not being paid adequate attention in the ongoing construction-spree.

These findings are from a new report published by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE). The study team estimates that 44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan – states that account for 40% of the rural population of India – still practise open defecation. This still represents an impressive reduction from 70% of the population defecating in the open in 2014, but is in sharp contrast to official data that reports 100% open defecation free (ODF) status in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and 48.39% for Bihar. Researchers at RICE also find that the change in open defecation from 2014 to 2018 is driven primarily by an increase in ownership of toilets, rather than by behaviour change.

The RICE report has an interesting section on the design of toilets being adopted by households participating in the programme. Only 25% of households that own a latrine have a twin-pit model, which is the most effective option for fecal waste management in rural India. The other options – single pit or containment chambers – either are not sustainable or require manual scavenging. Naturally, the chances of such toilets falling into disuse is high, and this will become a serious issue in the years to come. A Government of India advisory dated February 2018 shows that the central government isn’t entirely unaware of the issue of ODF sustainability, but one wonders how seriously this is taken amidst the euphoria of hitting lofty targets.

To move ahead of this stage where we are hitting construction targets, and towards attaining and sustaining genuine ODF targets, the next phase of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is likely to see reform. One can expect an emphasis on behaviour change communication – once the focus shifts way from meeting construction targets, state governments and district administrations will focus on encouraging behaviour change that helps sustain the ODF status in communities. Civil society must ensure that this pressure is maintained and the momentum generated by SBA is not lost. What is more worrying however are the lasting effects of poor design, which appear to be the case in a sizeable proportion of the newly constructed toilets.

Toilet construction is a simple exercise, but one that is enmeshed in local politics and cultural beliefs and caste-practices. To make matters worse, decades of rural sanitation programmes have left the rural poor disgusted by the quality of infrastructure thrust upon them by apathetic outsiders and they have clearly voted with their feet, by opting to walk away from shabby and unusable toilets. If toilets collapse frequently, even the best of ‘behaviour change’ efforts will be blunted. As a significant determinant of toilet use, it would not be far-fetched to say that if we do not manage to construct good-quality toilets, it is better not to construct them at all.

As the Modi government sets its sights on celebrating the 75thyear of India’s independence in 2022, they should remember the fate that befell the UPA 2 government when the 2011 Census of India found that toilet coverage statistics were inflated by at least 35 million. Non-government organisations working in the field had been pointing out the pitfalls of a target-driven sanitation programme for long, and they were unsparing in their criticism. Chastened, the government was forced to include a provision in MNREGA for ‘renovation’ of toilets. Data on access and use of toilets have always been overinflated in India. With the current government’s smarts in managing data, it is unlikely that the next census data will reveal such a massive gap. But is that a risk worth taking?


Also check out:
The Problem With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan — Episode 82 of The Seen and the Unseen

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About the author

Suvojit Chattopadhyay

Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on public policy and development, and is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Suvojit blogs here on development and politics; and tweets from @suvojitc.