Where do Indians defecate?

Half of India's population defecates in the open. In all probability, they will continue to do so for the next 10 years

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 19 November 2013

It may not be a simple coincidence that India has both the world's largest number of people defecating in the open and highest malnutrition rate (Photo by Meeta Ahlawat) By the time you read this article, some 600 million Indians must have taken that first call of nature.  But for most, it must have been very unusual: to take that hesitant and humiliating step out of their homes to defecate in the open. Everyday, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of human excreta is deposited in the open along rivers and streams, in open fields, on road sides and farms to contaminate water sources. According to Unicef, each gram of human excreta contains 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs. As many recent reports suggest, this unacceptable lack of sanitation has been responsible for high malnutrition in India

But why do people defecate in the open? In the 21st century and within an emerging economic power fuelled by new age technology and economy, this is not an ideal question for public probing. But it cannot be brushed aside. It may not be a simple coincidence that India has both the world's largest number of people defecating in the open and highest malnutrition rate. 

But aren't we implementing one of the largest sanitation programmes in the world? Yes, India in fact is implementing arguably the fastest toilet building programme on earth. According to government records, in the past one decade, India has been building more than 3.5 million toilets a year. To put it in perspective: 9,589/day, 400/hour or seven toilets/minute. Despite this, government has been changing its goal post to attain universal sanitation coverage. Earlier it said all Indians should have a toilet by March 2012. Now the government says it will be in March 2022 that we can dream of something that Mahatma Gandhi once said is more important than Independence.

Overwhelming figures
3.5 million a year (9,589/day): number of toilets built in India 

100,000 tonnes: amount of human excreta deposited in the open each day

10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts: what each gram of excreta contains

The debate is no more over when to meet the sanitation goal. Rather, it is on why we have not been able to meet the goal. The series of data on sanitation coming out of the Census of 2011 provides some startling answers. Besides, there are other surveys that point to a desperate situation. First, let's look at the hard numbers.

37.5 million toilets missing
The Census report found that 49.8 per cent of Indians defecated in the open while the figure for the rural areas was 67 per cent. Only 31 per cent of households had a toilet in their household premises. This was diametrically opposite to government's claims of reaching or covering up to 53 per cent of rural areas. Government's flagship sanitation programme, the Total Sanitation Campaign or Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, now targets rural areas as priority. Is there something missing? Besides the critical lack of right policy, on a pure physical estimate, the difference between government data on sanitation coverage and Census findings, are some 37.5 million toilets. Nobody knows what happened to such a staggering number of toilets built with government subsidies. 

Where have they vanished? On Tuesday, a nation-wide campaign is being launched to get an answer to this question. More than 115 organisations in 14 states will hold 40 “funeral processions” for what they call the missing toilets. Coming together as Right to Sanitation Campaign launched in March, the community groups believe that India's sanitation drive is too much toilet construction-centric while ignoring other critical aspects like community's involvement in taking up sanitation campaign as more of a health issue.

In fact, since the census data came out, there have been hectic efforts to  find the missing toilets and the right explanation for the discrepancy in data. The Ministry of Drinking water and Sanitation started a household-level survey in 2012 to assess the status in villages. Till October, 80 per cent of the village panchayats have been covered under the survey. This ongoing survey also found there is a difference of 25 per cent between what the ministry projected on sanitation coverage and what the census office found.

The current debate over the missing toilets does point at a few reasons that need to be worked out. It may be because of officials over-reporting toilet construction. Governments usually set targets for taking up toilet construction and it is widely known that officials fudge records to meet deadlines. This may be the reason when the surveyors of Census Office visited households they could not find them. Secondly, it may be because of government officials reporting renovation of existing toilets as new toilet construction. This must have increased the number of toilets in official records significantly. Such cases have been reported in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

The right sanitation model

Constructing toilets is no more an effective solution as the prime minister admitted in 2008 that less than 50 per cent of them were not being used. Why don’t people use toilets and prefer to defecate in the open?

Sticking to toilet-using habit depends on several factors: good structure that protects privacy, availability of water and awareness of the economic benefits of good sanitation. But the most important factor is the way the sanitation programme is approached. At present, sanitation programme in India is all about making a toilet, or stopping the practice of open defecation in a village through awards like Nirmal Gram Puraskar. Still many villages revert to open defecation. Why?

Let’s analyse a case. In Odisha, some 700 villages have stopped defecating in the open in the past 20 years and none of them has reverted to the old practice. Rather, they have put together Rs 7 crore as corpus to ensure enough fund for needy people to build toilets. Using toilet has become a habit for them.

Sanitation campaign in these villages was started by a non-profit, Gram Vikas. It adopts a diametrically opposite strategy to the one by government’s Total Sanitation Campaign. A village first works on assured water supply and then builds toilets. These toilets cost almost double what the government provides under its programme, but they are usable.

The cost difference is shared by the community: every household deposits Rs 1,000 with a corpus fund that takes care of future need of toilets. At times it takes six to 14 months for Gram Vikas to mobilise a community before people commit to take up water and sanitation works. The village elects a vigilance group with power to impose penalty, which monitors the use of toilets and drinking water facilities. Assessments of this now-famed Gram Vikas model show that the economic benefits of sanitation coverage, such as drastically reduced medical expenses, have ensured that communities stick to sanitation habits.

The message is clear: sanitation is not just about toilets. It is an issue that also concerns drinking water and health departments as every day people defecating in the open leave behind tonnes of excreta. This pollutes water sources leading to diseases. But these departments do not work hand in hand.

The information and communication needed to make using toilets a habit is also highly inadequate in Total Sanitation Campaign and least expenses are allocated towards this. Without any community mobilisation, the sanitation campaign has been reduced to a toilet construction drive.

No doubt we need to construct toilets desperately. But its social and economic design must also change.


Linking service delivery processes and outcomes in rural sanitation: findings from 56 districts in India

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) guidelines

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