Salvoes over open defecation

Under the radar, a great debate broke out this month about what is arguably India’s most pressing problem. That the controversy has been sparked by a research paper is bizarre, but the oddities do not end there. Changes in open defecation in rural north India: 2014-2018 is published by the research groups Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) and Accountability Initiative. The authors acknowledge that millions more Indians in villages in India own a latrine since 2014, but assert that 44 per cent of the rural populations in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh still defecate in the open. As ending the practice of open defecation in rural India has long been an issue of convincing people not to go into the fields to defecate even when there is a toilet, the study’s finding that 23 per cent of those who own a latrine still defecate in the open is worrying. The survey, conducted between September and December 2018, is based on interviews of almost 10,000 people across these four states. 

These findings clash with the numbers on the Swachh Bharat website that are updated before your eyes as if they were those giant information boards at a busy railway station. When I last looked, more than 547,000 villages had been declared open defecation free and 91 million toilets had been built since October 2, 2014. If, in reality, some 98 per cent of India now can be classified as achieving this basic level of sanitation, the country should see a massive drop in waterborne diseases and child malnutrition. Children not continually fighting diarrhea and dysentery in villages has implications for potentially raising the educational achievements of an entire generation of young Indians if our schools can be improved as well.

Given this extraordinary turnaround in the number of toilets built under the Modi government, a research paper by a small group of academics and researchers contradicting these claims ought to have been swatted away easily enough. Instead, the government, in a response to IndiaSpend, accuses the researchers “of grossly misleading the reader”. Several paragraphs later, the government even thunders against articles on the RICE report. “Given the glaring gaps in the aforementioned survey, the ministry would like to highlight that reports based on such erroneous, inconsistent and biased studies serve to mislead readers,” the ministry’s response to IndiaSpend concludes. 

What is distressing about the shrillness of the ministry response is that both sides have so much to admire about them. Under Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, drinking water and sanitation, the Swachh Bharat mission has built toilets at a speed that resembles a military operation. Iyer has led from the front. On occasion, he has lifted soil out of a ‘fallow’ pit latrine to make the point that the soil was completely harmless and odourless compost. Prime Minister Narendra Modi singled him out for praise at a public event in Bihar last year. 

On the other side of the debate is the dedicated team at RICE. The institute is led by two young American academics, Dean Spears and Diane Coffey, whose book Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Growth and the Costs of Caste featured a foreword by Angus Deaton, the Nobel laureate in economics, who praised the thoroughness of their research. It was the best book I read in 2017.

The authors of the paper are dispassionate and find good news as well in this government’s efforts: “We find important reductions in open defecation.  In the region (the four states) as a whole, open defecation declined from approximately 70 per cent of people over two years old in 2014, to approximately 44 per cent of people over two years old in 2018.  This 26 percentage point reduction in individual open defecation over a four year period (more than six percentage points per year) was rapid compared to the likely rate of decline in prior years.”

The problem in part is the Modi government repeats the previous government’s emphasis on toilets built, rather than championing behavioural change as vociferously as they do so much else. Indeed, surveying whether people are not just building toilets but building the right kind of toilets and also using them is an almost insurmountable task, even by the impossible challenges that trying to govern India represents.

Past experience and past surveys have shown that even toilets constructed in villages are sometimes used as granaries. Caste concerns has over the years prompted people to build open pit latrines that are too big to be inexpensive or to crave the kind of septic tank toilets that are not practical in the absence of abundant supplies of water and modern sewage systems. As Spears put it to me and a colleague four years ago, “Simply building latrines is not enough. We have to encourage people to use these. We have a culture of (belief in) purity and pollution that teaches people that it is bad to accumulate faeces near their home.” Many millions of toilets have been built in the past four years, but it still seems implausible that India has, in effect, become a completely different country overnight. 

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