On 2 October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of his flagship projects, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which targets eradicating open defecation in India by 2019. Halfway through its term in office, how close is the Modi government to achieving this ambitious target?

There is no denying the fact that SBM is a much-needed endeavour to improve sanitation standards in India. Globally, India had a worse record than even poorer regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, Ghana, etc. in terms of open defecation in 2012, according to a June 2014 paper from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics.

What has been the progress since SBM was launched? The statistics are not very encouraging. Between October 2014 and February 2016, the share of rural households defecating in the open went down by just over seven percentage points, and the figure was still above the halfway mark. These numbers have been taken from a reply to a Lok Sabha question by Ram Kripal Yadav, the minister of state for drinking water and sanitation.

To be sure, both the extent of open defecation and their progress in eradicating it varies greatly across states. According to data from the ministry of drinking water and sanitation and the Lok Sabha response, states which recorded better toilet coverage also had a lower share of households contributing to open defecation. Sikkim, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, which had higher individual toilet coverage, fared best in terms of rural sanitation, while Odisha, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Telangana with less coverage were among the laggards.

This is not to say that all households that have toilets within their homes are using them. A Plainfacts column earlier this month had showed that 6% of households in India reported open defecation despite having toilets. Access to water is important in determining toilet use. 63% of the households that defecated in the open reported having toilets without running water.

The Swachhta Status report released by NSSO, based on a survey conducted in May-June 2015, also showed that states with poor access to water in toilets have a higher share of households contributing to open defecation. 83.1% of rural households in Jharkhand resorted to open defecation in 2015—the highest among all states. The state had the second lowest share of rural households with access to water for use in toilets after Odisha, at 84%. States such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar recorded similar outcomes.

The numbers given above provide a useful context to evaluate the Modi government’s budgetary allocations for SBM. The government set aside Rs9,000 crore for rural sanitation in the 2016-17 Union budget, the highest ever allocation. But this has been accompanied by declining funds for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme. This is unlikely to help eradicate open defecation.

Caste-based discrimination in the provision of water also seems to be responsible for low toilet usage. According to a November 2016 Economic and Political Weekly paper by Shriya Thakkar titled Is India Really Transforming? Narratives from Dabok, Rajasthan, caste-wise inequality in access to water was affecting toilet use in a village in Rajasthan.

Out of the 102 hand-pumps constructed in Dabok in the last 10 years, only two could be located in areas inhabited by lower-caste people, the paper stated. With a regular toilet requiring at least 20-30 litres of water in a day for smooth functioning, even obtaining a few litres every day is a struggle, the paper quoted a village resident as saying.

According to Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh Sanitation Movement, maintenance of toilets is critical to ensure usage. Data shows that spending on toilet construction has steadily grown but the spending on information, education and communication (IEC)—the expenditure head for behaviour change campaign activities—is much less. In October this year, spending on IEC constituted just 0.8% of the spending on construction of toilets.

“So far, IEC has remained limited to big billboards and advertisements. But it has more to do with person to person engagement," said Avani Kapur, fellow at Centre for Policy Research.

Eventually, it is the demand for toilets that will eliminate open defecation. “The emphasis is more on target achievement. Demand for toilets has to be created at local level and then people need to be made aware of sanitation," said Sundar M. Senthilnathan, senior manager, policy research and advocacy, Arghyam.

The short point is that eradicating open defecation would require much more than just meeting toilet construction targets.

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