ODF India: Is a critical government survey on toilet access, use being withheld?

According to high-level government sources, the survey results contradict the government’s open-defecation free status claim

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 17 October 2019
Open defecation. Photo: Joegoauk Goa/Flickr

A copy of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s latest survey on the state of toilet coverage and use at the household level in India was doing the rounds among officials.

The ‘draft’ report, accessed by Down To Earth, pegged toilet coverage in India at only 75 per cent. Close to 80 per cent of those were being used.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, declared India open-defecation free (ODF) in front of 20,000 Panchayat representatives at the Sabarmati riverfront on October 2, 2019 to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary.

This would mean all households either have a toilet or access to one.

NSSO, under the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, conducted the 76th round of Socio-Economic Survey on ‘Drinking water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition’ and ‘Survey of Persons with Disabilities’ from July 2018 through December 2018. It listed the survey in its schedule.

This round, for the first time, had specific questions on the “use of latrine” and “reason for not using latrine”. It also questioned people on why did they not use a toilet at all.

The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation would be the prime user of the survey.

It found that households didn’t use toilets regularly despite building them. This should have been released before Modi’s October 2 declaration, according to some officials.

Non-availability of water was found to be a big disincentive for toilet use. At 81 per cent, women narrowly outdid men in usage.

The NSSO refused to vouch for this and said the “draft report” was under the process of verification and approval. It refused to give a date for its release.

“The dates for releasing this report are not specifically known to us because certain verification and validation is still going on. Surely we are also concerned. This will be released but when, we don't know. The data is not finalised yet,” Pankaj KP Shreyaskar, director, Survey Coordination division, told DTE.

If officials involved with the preparation and finalisation of the survey were to be believed, the report would now hardly make sense to ministry officials, irrespective of when it is released, as the country has already been declared ODF.

“At best, the report will be used for reference; the reasons for not using toilets being known can be targeted for sustaining the ODF status,” an official said, adding: “It is not going to be a politically explosive revelation.”

A NITI Aayog official said the report could raise questions on how “within nine months (the survey ended last December) did the government bring the households without toilet access — a quarter of the total — under Swachh Bharat Mission coverage”.

NITI Aayog is supposedly a prime user of the survey, according to the NSSO.

In NSSO quarters, there were some apprehensions over the fate of the report. “It will ultimately be published. But delaying it or holding it long under the guise of validating data will not serve any purpose,” an official said.

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