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
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

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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  • Extremely well researched and

    Extremely well researched and articulated article on the existing sanitation scenario in India. Much appreciation for bringing forth THE most simple fact that 'sanitation is not just about toilets'... Though many do agree with this concept, but very few adopt this mantra while implementing sanitation initiative. Sanitation is NOT about mere numbers but also about patience, contextualisation and adaptation to local scenarios...

    Congratulations for this article Richard Mahapatra!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • You may think it's an

    You may think it's an unpleasant subject but a perceptive and observant writer could make a nuanced article on this often marginalized every life. Glad my friend Richard did a crack at it. Well timed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Linking sanitation with

    Linking sanitation with health is the key issue in the success of total sanitation in the country, as rightly pointed out by the author. Secondly, the designs of the toilets must suit the local conditions. Blindly copying the western commode style of toilet is idiotic.
    One should see the simple designs in small towns of countries like Thailand and Viet Nam. A small open water tank with a small jug in the toilet block, takes care of the water requirement.
    But why go abroad? Anandwan in Maharashtra, has designed its own sanitation system, which uses small volumes of water and cleans up the muck too, via simple filtration and sedimentation tanks.
    I think, we are just intellectually lazy to design our own and find it easy to copy designs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article. Is it

    Excellent article. Is it possible that the missing toilets existed only on paper while the money was pocketed by unscrupulous elements?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Bakhtaver Mahajan, I agree

    Bakhtaver Mahajan, I agree that a western style commode is not the best design, even in the "west". There is no where in the world where we can afford to dispose of our waste in clean water. Our water is far to scarce and precious. It seems to me that the best type of toilets are composting toilets which can dispose of waste without contaminating water, and at the same time transform human waste into nutrient rich topsoil for cultivation. There is a successful project going on in Haiti based on this type of technology. I believe it would be worth investigating for development in India. http://www.oursoil.org/

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, The reasons for

    Dear Sir,

    The reasons for people reluctant to build their own permanent toilets could be (1)lack of finance,(2) lack of space to build the toilet and septic tank in their premises and (3)inadequate water facility to flush out.

    As for rural areas there are cheaper alternative to permanent structures. Temporary wooden structures of size 3' x 3' to 5' x 5' size with suitable height made of bamboo or wooden poles covered with bamboo mats or palm leaves all costing around Rs 500 using local material and could easily be built in open lands or agriculture fields. Two to five pits each of size 9" diameter and 30" deep could be dug in the enclosure and erected in open lands. After finishing the job, the excreta could be covered with some sand or loose soil. When all the holes are filled up, the entire structure could be shifted to a new location a few feet away. In a matter one to three months the excreta gets decomposed, become relatively harmless and turns into useful manure. This does not need any extra water to flush out. The structure could easily last for one or two years without much recurring expenses.

    P.Nukaiah Chetty
    Royal Castle,# 9-20-14, Laksminarayana Nagar, Anakapalle - 531001, A.P, Ph. 98492 18422

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Some people eat in private

    Some people eat in private and ease in public.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply