Is open defecation back in India?  

The latest WHO-UNICEF data shows at least one-sixth of India’s rural population still defecate in the open and a quarter doesn’t have even basic sanitation access  

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Sunday 09 July 2023
Photo: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

On October 2, 2019 Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India open defecation free (ODF). It was a personal promise by Modi to mark 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. This was one of his first developmental promises made from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his first Independence Day speech.

In the next 60 months, as he said while declaring India ODF, “600 million people have been given access to toilets, more than 110 million toilets have been built. The whole world is amazed to hear this.”

Indeed. India’s leap on this changed the global sanitation landscape. The world was closer to its toughest Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 of giving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene as India hosted the world’s largest number of population defecating in the open.

Since then, India doesn’t talk about ODF. It has crafted an elaborate next generation sanitation programme called ODF Plus focusing on sustaining the status and making villages adopt solid and liquid waste management.

Of the country’s nearly 0.6 million villages, some 0.36 million are already ODF Plus. While there is no way one can officially establish whether the status of ODF has been reversed, there have been murmurs on the status itself.

In July, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released their Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report for water supply, sanitation and hygiene for households for the year 2022. The JMP report gives status on access to water, sanitation and hygiene to monitor the progress on SDG 6.

According to this report, 17 per cent of the rural population in India still defecated in the open in 2022. One quarter of the rural population didn’t have even “at least basic” sanitation facilities.

The JMP report for monitoring progress on SDG 6, defines “basic” services as the improved sanitation facility which the household doesn’t share with others. Or, in general parlance, a basic service is an exclusive toilet for a household. This is also the goal that the Indian government aspired to while setting the ODF target.

The latest JMP report tracked the progress from 2015 when these goals were set. India has recorded significant progress: in 2015 some 41 per cent of its rural population defecated in the open (17 per cent in 2022) while 51 per cent households (75 per cent in 2022) had at least the basic sanitation facility.

Based on this progress, India has registered an annual average of 3.39 per cent decline in open defecation. If one applies this decline rate to the base figure of 2022, it would take another four to five years to be ODF.

This raises many questions, the prime being: Is India really ODF? In July 2021 when the WHO-UNICEF released the JMP report it said 22 per cent of India’s rural population practiced open defecation.

This mismatch between claims of the government of India and the JMP report is often explained in clinical and technical terms. Officials involved in India’s sanitation programme say that the government of India didn’t declare India ODF; rather it was the villages who self-certified themselves ODF thus enabling the country to declare so.

On the other hand, the government sticks to the assessment of its sanitation facilities including household toilets built under this programme providing access to such facilities which could be a proxy to claim ODF status.

The behavioural change to use toilets instead of open defecation has not been quantified — rather just qualified as a proxy — to ascertain ODF status with certainty.

The reality is that open defecation has not stopped and is still prevalent to a significant level. Open defecation is not just about behavioural change but a major public health threat which is why it was targeted for elimination. It is time the country reassess its ODF milestone.

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