(Hindustan Times)
(Hindustan Times)

Under NDA, more toilets, less open defecation

Amid over-reporting, NDA’s toilet building spree via Swachh Bharat Mission has improved sanitation but its focus needs to shift to behavioural change

Everyday in villages and towns, alongside roads and railway tracks, millions of Indians defecate in the open. Coming into power, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), like governments before it, promised to end this practice. Setting itself a target of 2 October 2019, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the NDA-II embarked on an unprecedented toilet-construction spree through the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Even after accounting for over-reporting in official numbers, SBM has reduced open defecation—but without tackling the deeper causes of India’s open defecation habit.

Toilet construction has received so much attention because India is a global laggard in sanitation coverage. According to data from the World Bank, in 2015, 44% of Indians defecated in the open. And while this has decreased significantly (from 75% in 1990), countries that are poorer than India, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and several sub-Saharan countries, have significantly lower open defecation rates.

Open defecation also partly explains why India lags behind developing countries on child health indicators such as nutrition and stunting. Faecal germs from open defecation are transmitted to children, hurting their development.

The Indian government’s response to this crisis has been to run concerted sanitation campaigns centred around toilet construction. The NDA-II’s SBM is a revamped version of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) which itself emerged from NDA-I’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). The big difference with SBM, though, has been the scale and speed of its implementation. For instance, the pace of toilet construction in SBM is nearly twice that of NBA.

The NDA-II has dedicated significantly more resources to sanitation as well. On average, NDA-II has allocated 0.5% of its annual budget on toilet construction against UPA’s 0.1%. And the individual subsidy for toilet construction has also been increased: the SBM provides 12,000 for every toilet compared to 10,000 under NBA and 4,500 in the TSC.

According to official government data, this spending has worked. The SBM dashboard shows that 99% of the country has access to toilets (up from 40% in 2014), and all but five states are open defecation free. But as welcoming these figures are, they are likely to be over-reported, as we have highlighted in previous Plain Facts columns (bit.ly/2RgmGQ).

A 2018 survey conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) suggests that open defecation is still widely prevalent (44% of households) across Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan—despite three of these states already being declared fully or largely open defecation free by the Union government at that time.

Earlier this month, the government released data from the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, an independent survey which also suggests India is close to becoming open defecation free.

The survey revealed that 93% of India’s households have toilets, almost all these households (97%) use them and, as a result, 90% of India’s villages are now open defecation free.

But even these figures have been subject to questions. In an ‘Ideas for India’ article, Payal Hathi and Nikhil Srivastav point out that in earlier surveys, NARSS surveyors were coerced to ensure that their survey results matched official SBM data.

Questions on official data also extend to other aspects of SBM. As part of the urban component of SBM, the government runs the Swachh Survekshan survey which ranks cities based on their sanitation and solid waste management. But, according to a recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment, these survey results too are prone to exaggeration because of poor quality of data collection.

Yet, for all the questions on the veracity of SBM data, the scheme has helped reduce open defecation and improve sanitation. The RICE survey reveals that open defecation in the four states mentioned above has decreased from 70% in 2014 to 44% in 2018.

The reduction has been driven almost entirely by new toilet constructions: 57% of rural households who did not have a toilet in 2014 had one by 2018 and 42% of these households received government support (i.e. through SBM). Similarly, the National Sample Survey Office’s Swachhta Status survey shows that the percentage of people who defecated in the open in rural India fell to 33% in 2017-18 from 52% in 14-15, while households with toilets rose from 45% to 64% in the same period.

New toilets on their own though won’t be enough to eradicate open defecation. Tellingly, the RICE survey shows that around 23% of rural households owning a latrine were still found to defecate in the open, the same proportion as in 2014.

In their book, Where India Goes, Dean Spears and Diane Coffey examine the reasons for India’s enduring reluctance to use latrines. They suggest that caste and notions of purity make Indians hesitant to use toilets, especially low-cost latrines that involve emptying pits once they’re filled.

They point to research that shows villages practising untouchability have higher rates of open defecation. As a result, affordable pit latrines aren’t used and instead rural households demand larger latrines with containment chambers which far exceed the SBM’s subsidy.

Tackling all this, Spears and Coffey argue, requires behaviour change. SBM may not be doing enough on this front.

With the focus on toilet construction, information, education and communication (IEC) initiatives have taken a backseat and, in 2018-19, spending on IEC constituted less than 1% of total SBM spending. For India to become truly open-defecation free, they recommend a policy that addresses the caste issues and perceptions around sanitation—while collecting regular, representative data to accurately track the policy’s progress.

This is the fifth of a 12-part report card series on NDA-II.

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