Bengaluru: India has built more toilets over the past two years than it did in the previous five years, if the latest official sanitation survey is to be believed. The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) conducted between November 2017 and March 2018 shows that 75% of rural households in the country have access to toilets, a 29 percentage point jump over what the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 reported.

Both NFHS and NARSS are government-backed surveys conducted in league with multilateral donor organizations such as United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and World Bank, respectively. NARSS interviewed 92,000 households across the country while the NFHS surveyed a much larger sample of 601,509 households.

A comparison of disaggregated NFHS and census 2011 data shows that between 2011 and 2015-16, the share of households with exclusive access to toilets rose 9 percentage points to 37%. But a comparison of NFHS and NARSS data shows that between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the share of such households rose a whopping 27 percentage points to 64%.

The annual pace of toilet addition went up from 2 percentage points in 2011-2016 to 30 percentage points in 2016-18 in Chhattisgarh. In Madhya Pradesh, the pace of toilet addition accelerated to 24 percentage points per annum from 1.4 percentage points per annum earlier, according to data from NFHS and NARSS.

Although the methodologies of NFHS and NARSS are similar, the former survey is about health while the latter focuses exclusively on sanitation and that may explain part of the jump, according to an official involved with the survey, who did not wish to be identified.

“NFHS did not reflect the improvements seen under the Swachh Bharat Mission as much of the progress happened in the second half of 2016," said the official. “States such as Chhattisgarh have been declared open-defecation free since then. The results of this survey can however be confirmed only by surveys which need to be conducted every six months."

The NARSS data suggests that 93.4% of the people who had access to toilets used them regularly.

The 93% figure might be an overestimate as many toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission (and under earlier programmes) are in poor shape, said Manohar Rao, senior programme manager at Arghyam, a Bengaluru-based foundation that works on groundwater and sanitation.

“Arghyam has been working with partners in districts in Bihar to renovate defunct toilets which have been constructed but are not used," said Rao. “Often, the pan is broken or there is no door or roof. Since these toilets have been counted under the Swachh Bharat Mission, they are no longer allotted money for renovation," Rao said.

In household surveys, responses often tend to depend not on what a person is doing but what he thinks should be done, said Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician. “That is also a good sign because it suggests that there is a change in the attitude," said Sen.

Amidst all the promising news, the NARSS does point to one worrying aspect in India’s sanitation programme: the rise in the share of toilets without water in some states.

Overall though, NARSS paints a picture of phenomenal progress in sanitation across India. Only after the results of the 2021 census are declared will we know for sure whether this is an accurate reflection of reality.

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