Independent surveys have shown that access to toilets does not mean open defecation has ended, as the government claims.

A woman in a green salwar kameez with a red shawl wrapped around her head pumps water from a hand pump, her back to the camera. A few toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission can be seen in the background.Image courtesy: Swachh Bharat Mission Facebook
news World Toilet Day Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 16:32
Written by  Sukanya Bhaumik

For nearly a year now, combating the ongoing global pandemic and its economic and social impact has been the focal point of governments all over the world. However, as we slowly return to normalcy, important development commitments made towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need to be brought back into focus. In the case of India, among the other SDG commitments, on World Toilet Day today, the enormous challenge of achieving universal sanitation under the under SDG 6 must be acknowledged as crucial.

In the past five years, the issue of open defecation has become an important topic in development discourses around the country. When the Census 2011 data was released, it was truly a shocking revelation to see that access to toilets in India was abysmally low at 47%, nearly 700 million Indians were defecating in the open every day. The economic and social costs of poor sanitation was about 6.4% of India’s GDP.

When Prime Minister Modi announced the ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) during his Independence Day speech in 2014, it was for the first time that words like toilet, open defecation and waste management were spoken at the august arena of the Red Fort. While sanitation programmes in India have been around for nearly four decades now, SBM has been the most successful so far in bringing urgent attention to the reprehensible issue of widespread open defecation.

In 2014, India started its extremely ambitious journey towards becoming 100% open defecation free in 5 years’ time. It is estimated that in the period 2014 – 2019, 110 million toilets were constructed and 600 million people given access to them. This pace of construction is surely unmatched anywhere else in the world. As per government data, SBM has achieved its main objective of making India open defecation free through the construction of toilets.

Though the overall achievements of the mission are worthy and laudable, there are questions about its implementation and impact that need to be answered better, with many of the claims made by the government not proven correct on the ground. The country is not open defecation free even now, and independent surveys have shown that over 40% of people in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan continue to defecate in the open. The access to toilets is not total, and even when there are toilets they are not always used. Non-availability of water and traditional notions of purity are among the issues that prevent usage. The poor quality of toilets constructed under SBM in many places also prevent people from using them.

A recent review report on the implementation of SBM points out that a village with 100% household toilets cannot be declared open defecation free till all the inhabitants start using them. The report also makes a very important point that the mission has only focused on toilet construction while a sum of Rs 10,678 crore that had been earmarked for promoting the use of toilets through a targeted and well-designed Information, Education and Communication (IEC) campaign has hardly been used. In fact, till November 2018 the government had spent just 1.8% of the funds earmarked for carrying out IEC, which is crucial for bringing about the behavioural change required to popularise the use of toilets. Most of the funds spent have been directed towards media publicity on radio, TV or in print, rather than on grassroots-level awareness campaigns.

The renowned Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) surveyed 3,235 households in four states in north India in 2014 and 2018 and found that open defecation had reduced by 26 percentage points in the four years since SBM was launched, with access to household toilets shooting up from 37% in 2014 to 71% in 2019. But access to toilets does not mean open defecation has ended, as the government claims. The RICE survey found that 23% of people who own a toilet continue to defecate in the open, including people in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, states which have been declared open defecation free.

The main reason for the discrepancy between the claims of the government and those of independent research surveys is that SBM targets on a 2012 baseline survey of the number of rural households without toilets. This led to the exclusion of several new households that have emerged over the years as families expanded. Secondly, the government has been making open defecation free declarations on the basis of latrine ownership rather than actual latrine use.

While it may be true that India is still far from becoming open defecation free, it must be acknowledged that SBM has managed to achieve in five years what sanitation programmes in the past 40 years have not been able to do. It has successfully brought the issue of poor sanitation to the national level discourse. SBM has given the issue much-needed impetus and directed the required intellectual and financial capital towards solving India’s enormous sanitation challenge.

As India moves ahead in the sanitation value chain, its focus should shift from just building toilets to usage, maintenance and safe disposal. India’s next phase of sanitation policy should focus on ‘sustainable sanitation’. Though the last leg of the road towards becoming open defecation free is long and difficult, what can be said for sure is that a strong beginning has been made. If the government learns from the first phase of the implementation and builds on it in the coming years, India’s goal of universal sanitation under SDG 6 is certainly achievable.

Sukanya Bhaumik is an urban planner and a PhD Scholar at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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