The challenges India faces to be truly open-defecation free

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While the Swachh Bharat Mission has made rapid strides in terms of making toilets more pervasive throughout the country, entrenched socioeconomic factors may be limiting access to and use of sound sanitation practices in Indian villages.

That awkward moment when the Swachh Bharat Mission says it has taken the horse to the toilet, but | M.A. Sriram

Swachh Bharat’s success in eradicating open defecation in over 5.5 lakh villages at the time of writing, through construction of millions of toilets, is a heartening achievement and has been celebrated by many ministers. While these numbers are encouraging, the policy faces multiple challenges. Many of these villages continue to tackle the problem of poor-quality toilets and lack of behavioural change, which brings into question the “open defecation free” (ODF) status awarded to these villages. Data collected over the decade leading up to the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission has exhibited that caste-based differences tend to hamper access and practice when it comes to sanitation in India. A recent field enquiry conducted during an ODF audit in a village in Madhya Pradesh, supplemented with findings from nation-wide data, shed light on these discrepancies, which must not be lost sight of in the effort to truly make the country ODF.

The Indian Economy presents an interesting case of growing per capita income, but relatively slower growth rate in improvement of sanitation conditions. While there has been considerable improvement since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission — the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2018-19 has reported, as on March 5, that the number of Indians defecating in the open has come down to under 50 million, from 550 million in 2014 — we still have a long way to go.


In their 2017 book, Where India Goes, academic scholars Diane Coffey and Dean Spears argue that open defecation may be a consequence of the caste prejudices that continue to exist. Practices like untouchability and belief of ritual purity of certain caste groups has exacerbated issues of lack of access to toilets and poor maintenance of existing toilets. Providing access and maintenance is easier compared to the mammoth task of inducing behavioural change which calls for systemic efforts and interventions.

The flagship programme Swachh Bharat Mission, constituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has brought this serious problem into the mainstream. But just like previous campaigns, such as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, SBM is riddled with complexities, operational challenges and ground-level implementation problems.

Even though the issue has come to be widely acknowledged (also thanks to the recent Akshay Kumar–starrer Toilet Ek Prem Katha), a problem of this scale and a policy this expensive needs more attention on understanding caste-based discrimination in sanitation.

The Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), conducted in 2004-05 and 2011-12 by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland in over 40,000 households, captured detailed information on sanitation, practices at the household level and infrastructure development at the village level over the two rounds. It captured not only individual-level information on socioeconomic background but also information on the social group composition (caste and religion) in each of the 1500+ surveyed villages.

Even though the IHDS datasets, which we analyse hereunder, pertain to a period before the SBM was launched, there may yet be value in examining it to understand the broader exclusions that exist vis-à-vis caste and social status as well as the extent, prevalence, and impact of these differences.

What do the survey data from 2004-05 and 2011-12 tell us?

IHDS data from 2011-12 suggests that over 40% of the 40,000+ surveyed households across India defecated in the open. In rural areas, the numbers are even higher (almost 60%). While this is a marked improvement from the last survey round (in 2004-05) where over 50% of the surveyed population (almost 70% in rural areas) claimed to be defecating openly, these numbers are staggering nonetheless.

Among social groups, we see an overall improvement, but the the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged castes is seen to be very large. In the 2011-12 round, Scheduled Caste (SC or Dalit) and Scheduled Tribe (ST or Adivasi) households had the highest incidence of open defecation at over 55% and 60% respectively, compared to ~30% among forward-caste households. In 2004-05, it was approximately 70% for SC and ST households and ~40% for forward-caste households. Clearly, despite efforts made by the previous government to reduce such practices, a revitalised focus on sanitation was much-needed and thus SBM is an important policy instrument.

As a lot of sanitation practices are shared, it is important to look at how disadvantaged households fare when they reside in villages where the majority of households belong to advantaged social groups (forward or upper castes) and vice-versa. While household-level benefits may not accrue to other members in the village, behaviour within the village and shared resources might impact individuals within the community.

Factors affecting open defecation

To understand how sanitation varies with caste structure, we look at the percentage of people open-defecating, whether there are closed drains in the village or not and whether efforts have been made to propagate the importance of sanitation and use of latrines and guide behavioural change. Due to lack of data, the audit was able only able to include Hindu castes — Sikh, Christian and Muslim households were excluded.

The villages are divided into four different categories depending on what castes are in majority there: villages with ST population as majority, villages with SC population as majority and so on.



How caste structure affects open defecation numbers

Majority community of village

% of villages where 80% or more households openly defecate

Brahmins + Forward




Dalits (SC)


Adivasis (ST)


*Based on IHDS 2011-12 data (sample size: 1,503 villages, 42,152 households)

The above table shows how each community’s preponderance in a village impacts the village’s likelihood of having 80-100% of its total households defecating in the open. It can be seen that a higher percentage of ST-majority villages display high prevalence of open defecation, and this share is lowest for villages where forward-caste households are in majority. As social disadvantage is highly correlated with economic disadvantage, the lack of sanitation practices is indeed a function of lower economic well-being or education levels of the household. But, these differences are found among households within higher economic and education strata as well.

Here’s a look at whether households with greater proximity to advantaged communities and households have higher access to toilets.

How each community’s open defecation rate varies based on which caste is in majority



 ST majority


OBC majority

SC majority

Brahmins + Forward majority

Brahmins + Forward










Dalits (SC)





Adivasis (ST)










*Based on IHDS 2011-12 data. (sample size: 1,503 villages, 42,152 households)

The above table plots the percentage of households of each caste defecating in the open when a particular caste is in majority (eg. 50.14% of forward caste households living in ST-Majority villages defecate in the open).

Clearly, the results from IHDS are bittersweet. While there is considerable improvement seen over the two rounds, a large fraction of households continue to defecate in the open. Disadvantaged households residing in villages where an advantaged community is in majority appear to be better off compared to their status in other villages, but SC and ST households continue to be the most disadvantaged in such villages as well. While villages that house more advantaged social groups are also economically better off and thus exhibit lower open-defecation levels even among the disadvantaged, the pattern of disadvantage with regard to sanitation practices remains.


Promotion of sanitation and use of toilets


*Based on 2004-05 and 2011-12 IHDS datasets collected from 1,503 villages

Data shows that there has been a substantial increase in “promotion of sanitation” and use of toilets across the two survey rounds. Except for villages with ST households as the majority population, all other villages reported to have a huge increase across the two rounds. This also indicates the promotion that has been taking place before the SBM period.


Percentage of villages with primary drainage system

Majority population of village



No drainage










Brahmin + Forward



*Based on 2011-12 data from 1,503 villages

This table represents the percentage of villages and the type of drainage system with a specific majority population. Here we see that SC and ST household–dominated villages are more likely to have no drainage system, and ST households are also least likely to have pucca or covered drainage system in their village.

Insights from field visit to an ODF-declared village

The audit in a village (name undisclosed to protect the privacy of the households and administration) in Madhya Pradesh helps us realise the possible reasons for such problems. These observations and interviews were undertaken over five days as part of a larger project that was an audit conducted to confirm the ODF status of the village. As has been found in other settings, the audit revealed that the village was not, in fact, ODF, either in terms of access or construction of toilets or use of toilets.

The village was located in western part of Madhya Pradesh and was economically well off compared to nearby villages or the average village in the district. It primarily consisted of upper caste and OBC households, and hosted a large share of disadvantaged castes as well. It hosted several communities — Rajputs and Dhakkads who were relatively well-to-do (and belonged to ‘Forward; and OBC categories respectively) and Bagris and Balais who were the disadvantaged groups (and belonged to SC and ST groups respectively).

The Sarpanch of the village actively strove to ensure that households were aware about the construction and usage targets they had to meet. Especially after the village was declared ODF in 2016, he became even more cautious. He involved Preraks (secondary school-going children) to make people aware about sanitation practices and reprimanded households that continued to openly defecate by fining them ₹500.

We found multiple cases where toilets were constructed but households had either failed to maintain them or had broken them down to extend their houses. Some had even used the ₹12,000 they got through the SBM to marry off their children. Further probing revealed that ineffective communication regarding the use and advantages of better sanitation practices was a major factor. It was not surprising to discover that households continued to defecate in the open in spite of toilets being present in their homes, but what was worrying was that low usage was more prevalent among the disadvantaged castes (Bagris and Balais) who faced similar economic conditions to other households. Balai households in particular were found to be more disadvantaged in sanitation practices — both in terms of availability of toilets in households, and also their accessibility to various communication efforts that were trying to induce behavioural change.

A significant factor that deterred use was the quality of toilets. UNICEF identifies three types of toilets — single pit, twin pit and septic tank toilets. The single pit toilet has one leach pit where all the sludge goes, as against two pits in the case of a twin pit toilet. A twin pit toilet also has a valve, through which as soon as the first pit fills completely, the sludge starts accumulating in the second pit. The sludge in the first pit is left to decompose, and used as manure once it dries up. In comparison to a single pit or a twin pit toilet, a septic tank toilet connects the toilet to a tank a little far away and all the sludge flows to and accumulates in that tank.




We observed that toilets which had a septic tank were extremely problematic. Sludge was flowing out through pipes directly into the drain right in front of the homes. So, the risk of being exposed to bacteria and consequent infections was higher than from defecating in areas further away from the home and it was, paradoxically, more sanitary to defecate in the open a kilometre away than in such a toilet constructed in the house. Such problems were identified more frequently in areas catering to disadvantaged communities. What’s more, efforts to tackle these problems had reduced considerably after the village being declared as ODF, since acknowledging these problems post the ODF declaration would invite a lot of questions.

Sludge collects in the drain in front of a home in a village in Madhya Pradesh. | Special Arrangement


After interacting with many households from different communities and the administration, we found that toilet-use was lowest among the Bagris and Balais. We identified four major reasons for lack of use among the disadvantaged — a). inadequate representation in the Panchayat, b). campaigns in the village that do not extend to hamlets that house disadvantaged communities, c). construction of poor-quality toilets and d). the general discrimination faced by them that leads to several other exclusions.

On the basis of nationally representative data as well as our field experiences in a village, we came to understand that disadvantaged communities often lack access to better sanitation practices and infrastructure that support it. Access might increase and infrastructure might improve once a household becomes economically better off or if their proximity to socially and economically well off households and communities increases, but many forms of exclusions still remain.

The involvement of various arms of the government, the focus of the media, the movies being made, and dedicated volunteers working towards improving this is commendable but some of the larger systemic issues have ensured that the most disadvantaged continue to get excluded.

While construction of toilets has rapidly increased, if the government truly wishes to realise its goal of Swachh Bharat by 2019 it must make concentrated efforts to ensure adequate representation of communities during design of campaigns and efforts. Ironically, the more villages the government quickly declares as ODF, the fewer opportunities will be presented to deal with the problem of differential access and usage.

(The views expressed and datapoints collated as above are the authors’, arising out of an audit conducted on the ODF status awarded to a village in Madhya Pradesh. The article has also been reworked and updated since first publication with fresher data that more accurately depict the progress made so far in India’s sanitation coverage, an ongoing process with evolving numbers.)

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