Is Rural India Truly Open Defecation Free?

The quest for Open Defecation Free (ODF) status started in districts and states across the nation soon after the launch of Swachchh Bharat Abhiyaan in 2014. Turning it into a much talked public movement, the present central government idealised an India with zero open defecation. It was a herculean task for the district and state officials, especially when the total Individual Household Latrines (IHHL) was just 38.7% nationwide initially. With the target of achieving 100% IHHL coverage by October 2, 2019, it became a chase and a competition—a competition to become ODF district and state before others.

The Swachh Bharat mission sent India on a toilet construction spree, and resulting toilet coverage has now accounted to cent per cent. At the time of writing this article, out of the 35 states (including union territories), all of them had achieved 100% toilet coverage status (refer to the table below). However, toilet coverage should not always be understood as toilet usage. There is evidence across the length and width of the country regarding the defunct or unused toilets.

Source: SBM MIS website

Since October 2, 2014, almost 100 million toilets have been constructed throughout India under the SBM-Gramin, leading to a significant 61.3% increase in toilet counts. During these years, nearly 6 lakh villages, 2.58 lakh gram panchayats and 700 districts of India declared themselves ODF, as stated in SBM-G MIS.

Poor Sanitation: Reasons, Beliefs And Consequences

Abysmal and unsafe sanitation is a consequence of mainly two factors: poverty and age-old practice. Poverty leads to the non-fulfillment of the necessities of human life, causing distressed living. India accounts for two-thirds of the population considered to be living in poverty; deprived of basic needs toilets are not a priority for them. Whereas, the traditional or age-old practice of sanitation in the form of open defecation—because of no change in behaviour with time—also contributes equally to the web of unhealthy and unsafe sanitation.

Representative image. Getty

India offers a wide variety of demography with numerous cultures and traditions. Sometimes, religion plays an important role in this deciding unsafe sanitation practice. “Religion, caste, and social group norms have shaped Open Defecation (OD) habits in India. We know that Hindus are more likely to go for OD than Muslims, despite being on average richer and more educated” (Alexander et al., 2016 pp 17). Additionally, some consider toilets as “ritually impure”; whereas, in some cases, the females are not allowed to use them. Since time immemorial, people have used their farmlands, bushes, railway tracks and other desolate places for defecation. This practice of defecating in the open has been imbibed in people’s lives for ages. Women, who are socially considered to be vulnerable, prefer to go early morning or late evening. Defecating in the open has brought many ill incidences for them like eve-teasing, abuse, molestation, and even snake bites.

The decades-long orthodox belief of going out remains among the people, and this is the biggest hurdle coming in the way of clean India. Despite the efforts to bring change in people’s mindset, so that they can accept toilets as a part of their lives, not much has changed. Therefore, just an infrastructure built in the premise of every house is not enough. Interestingly, the toilet has many uses than one can think of. A toilet is not just being used for relieving purposes but serves many other needs as well; SBM-Gramin has perfectly evidenced this.

The Curious Case Of Bihar

Bihar, a less developed state with a headcount of more than 100 million out of which roughly 89% are rural inhabitants, has fared poorly in this regard (Census of India, 2011). Before the start of SBM, only 25.65% of households had a proper sanitation facility to use every morning. However, after the marathon construction under SBM-G, now it has shot up to the maximum: Bihar is an ODF state with 100% toilet coverage as per the MIS, which means all the 38 districts of the state are free from any case of visible faeces in the open, it uses safe technological options for proper disposal of waste and is free of any unsightly situation.

REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

However, a village in Supaul cannot be considered a part of this achievement. Amaha, a village and itself a panchayat in the Pipra block of Supaul district, is unaware of ODF status reality, but, MIS of SBM-G has also declared it free from open defecation. According to the census of 2011 data, Amaha has 2,701 households under 15 wards. Chotu Lal Paswan, sarpanch of Amaha gram panchayat, says in ward number 7, more than 350 households are covered, roughly 5% of toilets have been built in their premise. He says extreme poverty and migration is the biggest issue in the area.

Amaha is basically a Maha Dalit tola, and the majority of the population is from the “Musahar” community. With no surprise, the constructed ones are also poorly constructed and left unused, and no effort has been made to provide this marginalized community with this basic need. Since the panchayat is already declared and verified as ODF, they will hardly inquire in the future.

This situation is not strange or new, in most of the districts and villages, similar cases of the unused or defunct toilets are coming out. In the chase of moving towards zero cases of OD, gram panchayats and villages are declaring themselves as ODF. Since the target of achieving 100% ODF status is too lofty, the state administration is taking stringent actions to mark their area as free from open defecation, which sometimes results in making false claims—constructing toilets only on paper.

Coercion is also being adopted in the mission to initiate practice and sustain toilet usage. In Bhagalpur and Khagaria, complaints about the administration’s coercive attitude to forcefully attain and thereafter sustain the ODF status were found. Few ways of coercion reported were the imposition of fines and the authorities threatening people. The Wire also reported about similar ways adopted to stop open defecation. The report listed three types of coercive state actions: some households were threatened that their government benefits would be stopped, some people were barred from defecating in the open, and in some cases, they were threatened with fines.

SBM, through community-led total sanitation approach, has aimed towards the demand-supply aspect of toilet construction. However, it has failed to consider the caste and religion facet. Also, the construction of toilets cannot be justified with the usage of it because, in Indian culture, OD is widely accepted as a normal practice. Although the government emphasizes the importance of BCC/IEC (Behavior Change Communities/Information, Education, Communication), the majority of the budget is allocated to toilet construction in households, whereas BCC/IEC is allocated only 15%. Research has shown that countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam managed to yield notable success in fighting OD by singularly focusing on behaviour change.

The toilet-building component of the SBM has taken over as the sole motive of the program. Behavioral and attitudinal change regarding OD is a complex phenomenon and thus needs a holistic approach. The objective of SBM cannot be achieved by threatening and pressurising people or by imposing fines on them. There should also be a stringent audit process to verify the declared ODF villages, and if found wrong, the authorities must be held responsible. Swachh Bharat Mission strived strongly to fulfil the desired toll of toilet construction by 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2 2019; however, the communication tools also need to be used effectively to change people’s attitude towards OD. Only then, we can claim the status of Clean India in front of the world.

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