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The government’s monitoring system does not track open defecation; it tracks funds spent on latrine construction. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The government’s monitoring system does not track open defecation; it tracks funds spent on latrine construction. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Is the Swachh Bharat Mission succeeding?

Nobody knows because there is no credible independent survey that can offer a useful nationally representative estimate of open defecation

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019. Doing so would have required the slow pace of decline in open defecation to have accelerated, starting in 2014, by more than a multiple of 12. This would have been three times as fast as the fastest five-year decline in open defecation ever recorded in any country.

So we should not be surprised that now, almost two-thirds of the way through the Swachh Bharat Mission, it appears very unlikely that open defecation will be eliminated on time. 2019 was never a realistic goal in the first place.

But this does not necessarily imply that we should be disappointed. The diseases spread by open defecation in densely populated rural India are so threatening to the survival, health, and development of children that even a modest acceleration in the pace of open defecation’s decline could represent a substantial improvement in well-being.

In fact, the best rural sanitation policy is not one that pretends an unachievable goal is achievable. It would be one that makes serious plans that are both ambitious and realistic, strategizing pragmatically to turn resources into feasible progress towards a hard problem.

Is that what we have? Has the Swachh Bharat Mission made meaningful progress towards accelerating the decline of open defecation?

Nobody knows because Swachh Bharat Mission is not measuring open defecation. There is no credible, independent survey that can offer a useful nationally representative estimate of the fraction of rural persons defecating in the open. Indeed, there is not even a cross-sectional estimate for a point in time after the start of the Swachh Bharat Mission, let alone a consistently measured data series to assess the pace of decline.

This is not to say that the government is not putting out numbers about sanitation. Indeed, data are collected, tabulated, and presented. But the resulting numbers do not teach us about the decline of open defecation.

One reason for this is that the government’s monitoring system does not track open defecation; it tracks funds spent on latrine construction. For reasons we describe in our book, few people in villages want the pit latrines provided by the government, so in many cases funds spent on latrines do not result in functional latrines.

Another reason why tracking funds spent on latrine construction tells us little about progress towards reducing open defecation is that even where funds are translated into functional latrines, latrine ownership does not imply latrine use. In research published in the Economic And Political Weekly (Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Dean Spears, Nidhi Khurana, Nikhil Srivastav, Payal Hathi and Sangita Vyas, “Evidence From A New Survey In Rural North India: Revealed Preference For Open Defecation"), we found high rates of open defecation among people who own government latrines. Other studies have found the same. If measuring open defecation is the goal, the government should be asking people carefully worded and respectfully posed survey questions about what they do.

The government could launch a survey to measure open defecation. Indeed, many small-scale surveys done by independent research teams have measured open defecation in different parts of the country. What we have learned is that asking rural people where they defecate—and getting accurate answers—has its challenges. But it is nevertheless feasible, and not particularly costly.

A first step towards measuring open defecation is asking the right question. A good survey question starts with an introduction that makes the respondent feel comfortable. For example, before asking about latrine use, a surveyor could say: “I have been to several villages like this one, and I have seen that some people who have latrines use them, and some people who have latrines defecate in the open." This introduction is important because people’s answers to survey questions depend in part on what they think the surveyor wants to hear. Many rural people understand that the government would prefer that they use toilets. It is all too easy for the government’s representative—likely a well-dressed, urban man with a clipboard—to give the impression that he expects latrine use and to get that answer.

In addition to a careful introduction, a surveyor should ask a question about latrine use that incorporates balance, is disaggregated by person (rather than asking about groups of people), and refers to a specific time frame. For example: “Yesterday, did Dean defecate in the open or did Dean use the latrine?" This sort of question is most likely to encourage people to tell the truth.

Of course, simply writing a good question does not guarantee accurate data. At least as important as getting the question wording right is training surveyors to be patient and respectful in their interactions with respondents, and holding surveyors accountable for learning the truth. Because of the training and monitoring required to ensure that unhurried and respectful interactions between surveyors and respondents happen consistently, we recommend that the government chose smaller sample sizes to measure open defecation in the country as a whole, and in the most important states, rather than at the district level. In this case, asking fewer people could mean learning more.

None of these are deep problems. They would all be entirely surmountable, for a small fraction of the spending on the Swachh Bharat Mission, by a political decision to commit to measuring open defecation, whatever the numbers may reveal. Taking opportunities to prevent some of the (we estimate) hundreds of thousands of deaths each year due to poor sanitation is more important than the potential embarrassment of “unsanitized" statistics.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears are founding executive directors of research non-profit r.i.c.e.

This article is adapted from a note in the authors’ book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Developments, And The Costs Of Caste. Its expanded version can be found at bit.ly/2tZr2Pb.

Published with permission from Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal.

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