Rural Water and Sanitation

Is India really open-defecation-free? Here’s what numbers say

15% of the total population in India defecates in the open in India, according to WASH report 2021

By Shivangi Aggarwal
Published: Tuesday 13 July 2021

Is India open-defecation-free? According to the Government of India, yes: The country became open-defecation-free (ODF) in October 2019.

But a recent joint monitoring programme (JMP) on water, sanitation and hygiene by the World Health Organization and UNICEF released July 1, 2021 stated that at least 15 per cent of the total population in India defecates in the open. One per cent of the urban and 22 per cent of rural population practises open defecation in the country. 

Besides open defecation, the Joint Monitoring Report also emphasised universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to achieve the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 in achieving universal access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services.

According to a report by NITI Aayog titled SDG-India: Index and Dashboard 2019-2020:

“Nearly six million villages, 633 districts (90.7 per cent of all districts) and 35 states / Union territories were verified as ODF in December 2019… 17 states and 5 UTs already have declared and verified all their districts to be ODF under Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen).”

The claim that India is 100 per cent open-defecation-free raises many questions. The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey, 2019-2020, showed that 0.8 per cent of the population in rural areas had no toilets and practiced open defecation; the figure was 6.8 per cent in 2018-2019; and 23 per cent in 2017-2018.  

But the JMP report has claimed that  “India was responsible for the biggest drop in open defecation since 2015 in terms of absolute numbers.”

It added (sic):

Within India, open defecation has been highly variable since at least 2006…The third round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) found open defecation to be practised by less than 10 per cent of the population in four states and the Union Territory of Delhi, but by more than half the population in 11 states. By 2016, when the fourth NFHS was conducted, open defecation had decreased in all states, with the largest drops seen in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana (see figure below). Open defecation at the national scale dropped 16 per cent points over the 10 years.”

JMP did not carry out any survey in 2020; the data from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and NHFS was interpolated through regression curves, according to a senior official, UNICEF.

The data for the same is comparable only with National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey, round three, 2019-20. According to this, 85 per cent of the rural population used safe and functional toilets. 

Population lacking basic sanitation, 2000 to 2020. Source: JMP Dashboard

“The JMP report did not involve any field survey or data validation globally. It was based on the data of the national government surveys such as the NSSO, NHFS and census. The data represented in the dashboard is a regression line and it showed sanitation coverage. The Government of India conducted a baseline survey which showed that 110 million people out of 180 million did not have access to toilets,” said the official from UNICEF.

The official added that the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) focussed on providing access to household toilets: “The country has not been declared ODF by the government; the data shows 94 per cent coverage of the population having access to toilets from 2014 to 2019.”

The official said the SBM was not only about having toilets but using them, which involved a change in behaviour, especially among the rural population.

Image: Reducing open defecation in India, 2006-2016. Source: JMP report, 2021

Rick Johnston, technical officer, JMP, Department for Environment, Climate change and Health, WHO, Switzerland, said: “We use linear regression from all available data points to produce estimates from 2000 through 2020. We had access to 41 data sources from India. These were mostly household surveys, administrative data and the censuses of 1991, 2001, and 2011.”

The data was through 41 sources, including Jal Jeevan Mission, Central Ground Water Board, Quality Council of India, National Sample Survey Organisation, Census of India, National Rural Drinking Water Programme, National Service Scheme, Central Pollution Control Board, Demographic Health Survey and others.

Other points of data on open defecation in India include:

  • Household Survey for the Assessment of Toilet Coverage under Swachh Bharat Mission, 2017, conducted by the Quality Council of India showed that 39.9 per cent of the rural population defecated in open. 
  • Demographic and Health Survey, 2016 showed that 10.6 per cent of the population in urban areas and 54.3 per cent of the rural population defecated in open.
  • The 76th round of the National Sample Survey in 2018 also gave similar estimates: 3.9 per cent of the population in urban and 29.9 per cent in rural areas practised open defecation.
  • The 69th round of the National Sample Survey by the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, NSSO, showed that 9.1 per cent urban and 60 per cent rural areas practised open defecation; India Human Development Survey, 2012 showed that 2.9 per cent urban and 42.2 per cent rural population defecated in open.
  • Coverage Evaluation Survey by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2009 showed that 12.9 per cent urban and 58.9 per cent of rural population practised open defecation in bushes and did not have toilets. The National Sample Survey 2008-2009 showed 11.3 per cent of urban and 65.2 per cent of rural population did not have access to toilets.
  • District Level Health Survey 2008 showed that 19.2 per cent population in urban and 65.8 per cent in rural is practicing open defecation and 17 per cent of urban and 74 per cent of rural population is going out for open defecation. 

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