Rural India open defecation free? Not quite, shows NSO survey report

The findings have come more than a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared rural India to be open defecation-free
More than one-fourth of households in villages have no access to toilets, according to the latest official survey conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO).

Around 71.3 per cent of rural households and 96.2 per cent of urban households had access to toilets during 2018, according to the NSO’s “Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India” report, released on Saturday. The survey was conducted between July and December last year.

The findings have come more than a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared rural India to be open defecation-free (ODF). 

According to the survey, a household has access to a toilet if a majority of its members has the facility of using it. This included toilets exclusively used by households, commonly used in the same building, or public-use toilets with or without payment.

The National Democratic Alliance government in 2014, by launching the Swachh Bharat Mission, had set a target of making rural areas open defecation-free by October 2 this year, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. A target was to “provide access to toilet facilities to all rural households in the country”.

“Today, rural India has declared itself ‘open defecation-free’. This is the strength and proof of success of the Swachh Bharat Mission. We are getting appreciated and awarded for providing toilets to over 660 million people in 60 months by building 110 million toilets in five years,” Modi said at a function in Gujarat on October 2 this year.

Two data sets presented in the survey report — household access to toilets and benefits received from government schemes on sanitation — were at the heart of a disagreement between the NSO and the government on the official survey results, leading to a six-month delay in the release of the report.

Significantly, half the rural households in Uttar Pradesh and Odisha had no access to toilets in 2018, meaning they were defecating in the open, according to the report. 

In 2012, 75 per cent and 81 per cent of rural households in UP and Odisha, respectively, had no access to toilets.

According to the data submitted by then Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi in the Rajya Sabha on December 24 last year, rural Uttar Pradesh had 100 per cent households with toilet access. Open defecation was also prevalent in a state like Gujarat, which was declared ODF in February last year. Gujarat had 14 per cent households with no access to toilets during 2018.

However, households with access to toilets have grown significantly since the previous round of survey was conducted by the NSO between July and December 2012. Back then, 40.6 per cent rural and 91.2 per cent urban households had access to toilets. At an overall level, 20 per cent households in India had no toilet access last year, compared to 63 per cent during 2012.

Despite launching the Swachh Bharat Mission, only 17.4 per cent of rural households reported receiving benefits from government schemes for building sanitation facilities in the last three years, the NSO survey report showed. About 80 per cent rural households reported not receiving benefits from sanitation-related government schemes ever.

The ministry of drinking water and sanitation, which was part of the working group (or an expert committee) of the survey, had expressed concern related to some findings of the report.

On May 27, when the working group met to approve the report, the ministry said the data on the proportion of households with access to toilets in rural India “was on the lower side” and should be re-examined. It also said the data on the share of households who didn’t receive benefits from sanitary schemes of the government “was on the higher side”, according to documents reviewed by Business Standard.

The ministry said the findings of the survey did not match the administrative data. It also cited a “large scale third-party” survey titled “National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-18” under the World Bank-supported project, which found rural toilet usage to be around 93.4 per cent. According to the ministry’s own data, national rural sanitation coverage went up from 39 per cent in 2014 to 98 per cent until January this year.

However, the working group asked the ministry to verify its own data and had found no problems with the NSO report.

When the report was made public on Saturday, it came with certain caveats. “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,” the survey report said.

What the NSO essentially meant was that the surveyors asked people whether they received sanitary-scheme benefits from the government before they asked the question related to access to toilets. 

“There may be an inherent tendency of the respondent to give a negative reply on the presumption or expectation that a negative reply on benefits received and access to facilities, may help them to get additional benefits through government schemes. This respondent bias is difficult to isolate and measure using conventional survey techniques,” the NSO report said. It added that the gaps would be plugged in the survey which will begin in 2020.

Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the central government had released around Rs 36,000 crore to state governments, under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin).

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