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Home >News >India >Survey data again casts doubt over reality of open defecation-free India

In late 2019, the Narendra Modi government attempted to delay and then discredit an official survey that showed sanitation coverage was far lower than it was claimed. Another major government survey has now confirmed the trend: in five states, over one-third of the rural population still lack exclusive access to ‘improved’ sanitation for their households.

In Bihar, for instance, this figure is less than half, shows the data from the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey, held in 2019-2020. In rural Gujarat, nearly 37% residents do not have access to an improved facility. Kerala is the only state whether the situation on the ground is aligned with administrative data.

Administrative data from the Swachh Bharat Mission claims nearly 100% toilet coverage. The two sources measure different metrics, but the wide gap shows many Indians may still be using open defecation contrary to government claims.


Sanitation has been a cornerstone of the prime minister’s agenda. The Swachh Bharat Mission, which aims to eliminate open defecation, was Modi’s first major scheme in 2014. By the end of 2020, the mission’s dashboard claimed that over 99% rural households had access to an exclusive toilet, and most villages had been declared open defecation free. In urban India, over 100% of the target of building toilets had been achieved. In comparison, the 2011 Census had shown that 53% households had no toilet.

Doubts were first raised about the dashboard data when a National Sample Survey, conducted during July-December 2018, reported that nearly 30% of rural households did not have access to a toilet, much lower than what the portal claimed.

An unusual caveat preceded these findings: “It may be noted that there may be respondent bias in the reporting of access to latrine as question on benefits received by the households from government schemes was asked prior to the question on access of households to latrine."

Explaining in an op-ed later, chief statistician of India Pravin Srivastava suggested that the respondents could be lying to surveyors despite having toilets, so that they could claim benefits from the government.


The report’s delayed publication, in November 2019, did not help. The delay was "probably as the contents were not positive for the government", according to P.C. Mohanan, former acting head of the National Statistical Commission. Mohanan had resigned from the commission months before the report came, citing similar delays and political interference.

But findings of the new official dataset from NFHS are similar to the NSS report, once again indicating that the Swachh Bharat Mission data may not be reliable. The NFHS covered over five lakh households, five times as many as surveyed in the NSS, and conducted over a year later.

Part of the discrepancy is because of what these different sources record. The Swachh Bharat Mission dashboard only records households that have constructed individual toilets. The NSS asked whether members of the household had access to a toilet, who else used it, what type of toilet it was, and whether the respondents were using that toilet. The NFHS, released last month, reported whether members of the household had exclusive access to “improved sanitation", which includes a range of types of toilets.

Several states other than Bihar where the NSS had found poor use of toilets—such as Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh—were not covered in the NFHS.

Researchers who study sanitation and have conducted surveys to measure access on the ground against administrative data say the early NFHS numbers echo their findings.

“We think the NFHS is the best nationally-representative data there is on sanitation in rural India, so we would be inclined to take it seriously," economist Dean Spears said in an email. Spears has been studying sanitation data along with other researchers at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics. The team’s research focuses on northern India, and Bihar was the only state common to their study as well as the NFHS.

“It looks like most rural Biharis still don't use improved sanitation in the NFHS-5, and...that means that probably about half of rural Biharis defecate in the open," Spears said. Further, household-level questionnaires such as the NFHS and NSS likely underestimate open defecation, Spears and his colleagues have found, meaning that the situation at the individual level could be even worse on the ground than the new numbers indicate.


P.C. Mohanan’s exit from the NSC in January 2019 was followed by establishment figures attempting to discredit India’s household survey architecture. With new survey data yet again proving inconvenient for the government, a new front in the war against data could open up.

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