Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Why India’s toilet data is too good to be true

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has increased access to toilets and reduced open defecation in India but not to the extent that the government claims, shows a study.

Mumbai: The country is close to attaining the long-sought and desperately important goal of universal sanitation coverage, according to India’s official sanitation statistics. The latest data from the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) portal suggests that 27 out of India’s 36 states and Union territories are now open defecation free (ODF) with 98.6% of Indian households having access to toilets.

If these numbers sound too good to be true, they are most likely to be quite off the mark. New study by a team from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) suggests that 44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan still defecate in the open. However, according to SBM, the three states are either fully or largely ODF, except for Bihar.

According to SBM data, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh have achieved 100% sanitation coverage of rural household (proportion of households with toilets). However, the RICE survey found the proportion of rural households with toilets lagging in all the three states.

The difference is particularly stark in the case of Bihar, the survey of 1,558 households in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan shows.

These four states accounted for nearly half of the households without toilets and defecating in the open, as of 2015-16, according to data from the large-scale National Family Health Survey (NFHS).

While the study questions the extent of Swachh Bharat’s success, it also highlights its impact. The researchers find that access to toilets has risen sharply over the past four years. In 2018, 71% of the rural population in these states owned a latrine compared with 37% in 2014.The increase in toilet ownership seems to have been driven by SBM.

The survey reveals that 57% of rural households without a latrine in 2014 had one by 2018 and 42% of them received government support. There is also significant disparity across states. In Madhya Pradesh, 83% of households who did not have a toilet in 2014 had one in 2018, while in Bihar the corresponding figure was 37%.

While toilets are an important first step for sanitation, they still need to be used. As we have highlighted in this column earlier, reducing open defecation requires behavioural change .

The RICE survey found open defecation in the four states to have decreased from 70% in 2014 to 44% in 2018 with the biggest improvements in Madhya Pradesh (43 percentage points) and Uttar Pradesh (26 percentage points).

However, these improvements may have been driven almost entirely by the construction of latrines rather than any change in behaviour, the RICE study suggests.

Around 23% rural households across the four states owning a latrine were found to defecate in the open. This is the same proportion as in 2014.

In Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, open defecation among toilet owners actually increased between 2014 and 2018.

Taken together, these results imply that SBM did not induce any behavioural change. More than behavioural change, SBM may be forcing change through coercion, the authors suggest.

Across the four states, it was found that coercion was a major means to achieve targets. More than half of the households surveyed (56%) said that they were aware of coercion in their village and 12% said they faced it in their own households. Scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households were more likely to be at the receiving end of coercive tactics, the study suggests.

These latest findings reiterate the importance of adopting a more holistic approach to open defecation rather than the current singular focus on toilet construction. While building more toilets has undeniably helped India’s sanitation challenge, the impact would be far greater if these initiatives were combined with interventions targeting behavioural changes.

Further, for toilets to prevent diseases better, they need to be a part of an integrated sanitation approach that includes water supply, water connections, and waste management .

The RICE survey highlights the challenge on this front. Of the toilets built with government support in the four states, only 42% were twin-pit latrines—the recommended toilets for safe and sustainable waste management.