Rural Water and Sanitation

Swachh Bharat Mission to be a continuing challenge

The fight for open defecation-free status is far from over

By Dean Spears
Published: Monday 30 September 2019
Toilets: Illustration: Getty Images

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the goal of ending open defecation within five years. Accelerating the decline of open defecation is a worthy goal. Rural India is so densely settled that open defecation spreads diseases, killing and harming children.

But eliminating open defecation so quickly was always an implausible goal. This raises a question: do overambitious political targets do good, by encouraging action? Or do they do harm, by licensing coercive methods and undermining policymakers’ credibility? Or, both?

In a 2017 book, Diane Coffey and I predicted that the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) would change little. We were right in some ways and wrong in others. Open defecation still exists, especially in the multiply disadvantaged, densely populated villages of rural north India. Such was the pace that India was on in the 2015-16 Demographic and Health Survey.

Such was what our team at RICE found in a late 2018 survey that visited households from the 2014 survey in four states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Such is what Centre for Policy Research has found, what 3ie studies have found. Open defecation is an important challenge in these four states.

But SBM did more than what we predicted, and the decline in open defecation did accelerate. Rural latrine ownership increased meaningfully over this period, and more local officials than before now understand the twin-pit latrine model.

Importantly, however, the decline in open defecation from 2014 to 2018 in these states was, according to statistical accounting, entirely due to increasing latrine ownership — not to behavioural change. The fraction of latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change over these four years.

Unfortunately, some of what SBM did that we did not expect, caused harm. Many survey respondents report that SBM attempted to coerce latrine construction, including by withholding or threatening to withhold government benefits. Adivasi and Dalit households were especially likely to face coercion.

Variation in SBM coercion is correlated with variation in sanitation outcomes: in villages where more people report coercive SBM activities, more people also reported switching to latrine use.

These outcomes suggest the need for transparent, fact-based public dialogue about SBM: its costs and benefits, its accomplishments and means. The next rural sanitation policy for the North Indian plains will have its work to do — by focusing on behaviour change, and on the roots of enduring open defecation in the purity and pollution rules entangled with both casteism and sanitation behaviour. 

The author is founding executive director, Research Institute for Compassionate Economics 

This is part of Down To Earth's print edition dated 1-15 October, 2019

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