Eliminating Open Defecation in India by 2nd October 2019 – the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi – is one of the key aims of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan movement launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years ago on Gandhi Jayanti.
As per the most recent Swachhta Status Report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), in 2015, more than half of the rural population (52.1 per cent) of the country still defecates in open —a major public health and sanitation problem.
How does India compare with other countries?
India fares poorly. According to data compiled by r.i.c.e, Sub-Saharan Africa, which had 65 per cent of the GDP per capita of India, had only about half of the rural open defecation compared to India.
In Bangladesh, only 5 per cent of rural people defecate in the open, significantly lower than that in India.
Access to toilets
The Swachhta Status Report finds that 45.3 per cent households in rural areas reported having access to a sanitary toilet whereas, in urban areas, 88.8 per cent households reported having sanitary toilets. Sanitary toilet is one which ensures safe confinement and disposal of faeces and does not require the need for human handling.
Comparable data from various rounds of NSSO show that access to latrines has improved both in rural and urban India. In 1993, 85.8 per cent of rural households didn’t have access to a latrine. By 2012, the number was reduced to 59.4 per cent.
Does access to toilet ensure usage?
This is one of the key policy questions regarding Open Defecation and also the one which is the most debated. Should the government focus on building more toilets—increase access, or on encouraging people to use toilets—behaviour change?
Based on findings from NSSO’s Swachhta Status Report, one can conclude that access implies usage. The survey found that among the households having a sanitary toilet, 95.6 percent people were using it. “It may be seen that for the rural households having a sanitary toilet, the usage percentage was very high across all categories [age, gender],” the report says.
As per another NSSO survey, in 2012, just 1.7 percent of the households in rural areas and 0.2 percent of the households in urban areas had access to latrine but not using them.
But the SQUAT survey conducted by r.i.c.e found that 40 per cent of households that have a working latrine have at least one person who regularly defecates in the open. Further, less than half of people who own a government latrine use it regularly. “47 per cent of those that defecate in the open say they do so because it is pleasant, comfortable, or convenient.”
Can access to toilet change personal preferences? The question remains unanswered due to lack of official data. Diane Coffey from r.i.c.e argues that the NSSO survey is not designed to tell us what will happen if the government builds latrines for people who don't have them.
“The vast majority of latrines in rural India cost at least 20,000 rupees and have large pits that are mechanically emptied, or never emptied. The government provides latrines that have soak pits that need to be emptied manually. Villagers think that only Dalits can do this work,” Ms Coffey told The Hindu.
Note that under Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), the support for building an individual toilet is Rs. 12,000.
The pace of toilet construction increased in 2015-16, government data says.
But the toilet construction numbers are not always reliable, as was found by an audit report by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India that was released in December 2015. The CAG found that during the UPA-II regime, governments of at least 16 states exaggerated the data on individual household toilets by over 190 per cent of the actual constructions.
Further, the CAG report said that of the constructed toilets, around 30 per cent were found to be dysfunctional.
A Niti Aayog report of Sub-Group of Chief Ministers on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan states that “the visible improvement in toilet coverage across Indian states is deeply undermined by the poor quality of operation and maintenance of these facilities.”
As per the All India Baseline survey conducted by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in 2012-13, 1.39 crore of the total 7.41 crore household toilets in India were defunct or dysfunctional.
“Financial assistance provided under the previous Government programmes was inadequate and led to the improper construction of toilets, which slowly became dysfunctional,” the NITI Aayog report states.
According to Accountability Initiative, allocations for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Gramin) increased over threefold from Rs. 2,850 crore in FY 2014-15 to Rs. 9,000 crore in FY 2016-17. Part of this jump is due to the introduction of the SBM (Swachh Bharat Mission) cess in November 2015.
Behaviour change is a key priority of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan as sanitation is a behavioural issue, central government says. “It involves a change of mindset amongst people to stop open defecation and to adopt safe sanitation practices.”
But numbers tell a different story. Lesser funds are now being spent on Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities.
According to Accountability Initiative, construction of Individual Household Latrines (IHHL) accounted for 97 per cent of the total expenditure between April 2015 and February 2016. IEC accounted for only 1 per cent of total expenditure. This is a 3 percentage point drop from FY 2014-15.
Expenditure on IEC reduced from Rs. 175 crore in 2013-14 to Rs. 109 crore in 2015-16, government conveyed in response to a parliament question.
Water in Toilets
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation says that adequate availability of water for toilets is also a concern. In rural India, 42.5 per cent of households were found to have access to water for use in the toilet compared to 88 per cent in urban India, Swachhta Status report found.
How many districts and villages have eliminated Open Defecation?
As of August 2016, only 17 of the 650 districts have been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) by the government. Of the six lakh plus villages in India, 54,732 were declared ODF as of 31st March 2016. These figures are sourced from responses to parliament questions.