Stragglers in Swachh Bharat

As we wait for the dates of the Lok Sabha election to be announced, it’s increasingly becoming harder to separate fact from fiction; truth from exaggeration. Take the findings of the recently-out second edition of National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19. It has found that 93.1 per cent of rural Indian households now have access to toilets — and 96.5 per cent of these are in constant use. My experiences in the field tell me otherwise: You can give a person a toilet, but getting him/her to use it is another matter. Which is why in the frenetic race to declare the entire country “open defecation-free”, I find the stories of the stragglers and the false starters instructive. For they tell us that instead of declaring the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan an unmitigated success, the focus should be on what more needs to be done. 

In mid-February, I visited Barabanki near Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. None of the villagers I met who had toilets, used them regularly. This column had elaborated the reasons people gave for not using them — ranging from not wanting their septic tanks to fill up too fast (which was absurd as most toilets I saw were the twin-pit composting type) to enjoying the answering of nature’s calls in the lap of nature. 

A week later, a similar picture presented itself to me in Bhadrak, Odisha. Almost every household I visited had a toilet, or access to one. To say that none of them was being used at all would be incorrect. I met 27-year-old Sukumari Behera in Gobindpur village whose husband had built a toilet for her as a wedding gift. It had turned out to be, she said, a godsend, especially as local tradition dictates that young women should not step out of their houses for at least two years after marriage. Also, after years of the daily ignominy of walking one to two kilometers in the fields to defecate, the toilet transformed her life.

To say, however, that every member of every household who had a toilet, was exclusively using that would be equally incorrect. Her neighbour septuagenarian Hemalata Behera had a toilet for three years — but had never used it. “I’m scared to use it as it is very dark,” she said. It turned out that most toilets in the village had no electricity. Toddlers, I saw, rarely wore any lower garments here. “This way, little children can relieve themselves whenever they like, wherever they are,” said Savitri Malahik, a mother. So other than young women who routinely used the toilet for reasons of modesty, or the elderly, who weren’t able to walk far into the fields, I found most others rarely used toilets. 

These field findings match the 2018 study by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics and Centre for Policy Research, which found that across rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, 23 per cent of people who have a toilet continue to defecate in the open.

Maybe we need better-designed and more conveniently located toilets. Maybe we need to ensure that at least all children learn to use toilets exclusively. Whatever we do, we can’t keep building toilets all over the countryside without understanding why they’re not being used.


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