Cleanliness is next to godliness—or so we are told. In India, cleanliness actually ranks several notches below godliness on the priority list.

A recent report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) shows that Indians are willing to spend more on religious services than on sanitation, irrespective of spatial and income divide.

The survey, findings of which were released last week, was conducted between July 2014 and June 2015. This report gives a break-up of spending on 14 miscellaneous consumer services. These are domestic services, barber and beauty shops, TV and radio services, laundry and dry cleaning, repair and maintenance, communication, religious services, recreational and cultural services, cremation-related services, business services, tailoring, car parking, coolie/porter and toll charges, and sewage disposal and sanitation. The list does not include important categories of health and education.

As per the report, of the total monthly per capita expenditure spent on miscellaneous consumer services, religious services accounted for almost 9% in rural areas, as against a mere 0.22% on sewage disposal and sanitation. Urban India spent 5.7% of its monthly per capita expenditure on religious services, while expenses on sanitation stood at 0.45% only. These percentage shares are vis-à-vis the total spending on consumer services and not the overall monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE). Giving absolute numbers can provide more clarity on this.

In absolute numbers, MPCE on religious services was 12.83 and 22.15, respectively, in rural and urban India. Corresponding expenditure on sewage disposal and sanitation was 0.31 and 1.76, respectively. Total MPCE (by Uniform Recall Period) figures for rural and urban India in 2011-12 were 1,279 and 2,400, respectively. The total amount spent on all services, according to the latest survey, was 331.75 and 819.36 in rural and urban areas, respectively.

Previous rounds by NSSO do not provide similar data to enable comparison.

Expenses on sewage and sanitation include any amount paid to toilet cleaners, and sewerage cleaners, and any amount paid to any waste water treatment plants. Religious services, on the other hand, include priest charges, religious donations and subscriptions and other religious expenditure.

Expenditure on religious services was also surprisingly high among poor-income classes. The poorest 20% in rural areas spent 7% of their monthly expenses on miscellaneous consumer services on religious activities. For the richest 20%, this comprised of almost 10% of total expenditure.

Data also suggests that people in rural areas are seemingly more religious as compared to their urban counterparts. In urban areas, share of spending on religious services in the poorest and richest income classes stood at 6.1% and 4.4%, respectively, of their total spending on consumer services.

In both rural and urban India, the percentage share of spending on sewage disposal and sanitation was less than 1% of the total spending on consumer services across all income classes.

Another surprising statistic that the survey throws up is that a higher number of households in the country report having spent on religious services than on activities related to sanitation. Consider this: more than one in three households in both rural and urban India reported consuming religious services. As against this, only one in 50 households in rural areas reported sewage disposal and sanitation services. In urban areas, the share was one in every 10 households.

It would be interesting to see whether spending on sanitation goes up in subsequent rounds, given the ongoing Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. However, experts feel that the survey might be under-reporting some of the sanitation spending data. Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and also a Mint columnist, said the low rural spending on sanitation might be due to open defecation (which does not require any spending). In the urban areas, on the other hand, it may be the case that the domestic help provides the sanitation services, because of which there is no pay accounted for the same in this category. In urban areas, unlike water or electricity, not all households may have a separate bill for sanitation services which reflects in the numbers, he added.

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